By Sam Boykin
While visiting Charlotte, N.C., this summer, 18-year-old Lauren Seitz, along with several other members of the Westerville, Ohio, church choir, decided to check out the U.S. National Whitewater Center (USNWC). The sprawling outdoor sports complex has mountain bike trails, rock climbing walls and ziplines. But the main attraction is the Class IV whitewater river, a manmade closed-loop course that uses concrete channels to recirculate 12 million gallons of water. Seitz and her friends, on June 8, went for a guided rafting trip, during which the raft overturned. Eleven days later, after suffering from fever, headaches and nausea, Seitz died. Now health officials and the USNWC are trying to determine how and if Seitz's death could have been prevented, and if other paddlers around the country should be concerned for their safety.
Investigators say that while at the USNWC, Seitz contracted a deadly “brain-eating amoeba" called Naegleria fowleri that is typically found in warm freshwater such as rivers and lakes. The amoeba causes an infection known as primary amebic meningoencephalitis, which is rare but nearly always fatal. According to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 138 cases of the infection have been reported since 1962, and all but three patients died. People can only be infected when water containing the amoeba enters the body through the nose. The Naegleria fowleri amoeba is very common, especially during the summer in Southern states, and doctors don't yet understand why relatively few people get the infection.
On June 24, after the CDC found the Naegleria fowleri amoeba in 11 USNWC water samples, the center suspended all its whitewater activities. It also drained the artificial river to dry and clean all the concrete and rock surfaces, and publicly announced it was working with the CDC and other health officials to address the issue. The CDC has also indicated that there needs to be engineering and operating modifications before the center's whitewater channels reopen. Even as the rest of the USNWC remains open, the center is dealing with a serious blow to its reputation, and could face lawsuits in the future. Moreover, Seitz's death has raised questions about how water quality is maintained and tested at whitewater facilities.
First of its Kind
When the USNWC opened in 2006, it was the first facility of its kind--pumping municipal drinking water to create an artificial, self-contained whitewater course. Situated along the Catawba River on some 1,100 acres, the center soon became one of Charlotte's most popular and high-profile attractions. USA Canoe/Kayak chose the facility as an official Olympic Training Center for whitewater slalom racing, and the center hosted the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Team Trials.
But Aaron Mann, director of communications for USA Canoe/Kayak and a former U.S. Senior National Team Member, says that for years Olympic athletes complained of "serious algae growth" at the USNWC. "So this has been a recurring trend, but we're still shocked and saddened that it led to the death of this young woman."
Mann added that the two USA Canoe/Kayak Olympic athletes who live and train in Charlotte have been in Europe for the past month or so preparing for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, so they haven't been directly impacted. Mann said he didn't want to speculate on whether USA Canoe/Kayak would train at the USNWC in the future, but that the team has other options in the United States. "It's just a matter of people's willingness to move," he says.
Bad Luck and Negligence
The USNWC filtered its water with a system of stacked discs that trapped particles, followed by ultraviolet radiation and chlorination that reportedly killed 99.99 percent of waterborne amoeba. But as part of its investigation, the CDC indicated that the center's filtration system was inadequate to properly clean the facility's waters, and that health officials detected significant levels of the amoeba they had not previously seen in environmental samples.
Since 2007, two other whitewater centers have opened that are similar to the USNWC. One of the main distinctions between the USNWC and other facilities is that it's not regulated under public swimming pool standards.
Like the USNWC, Riversport Rapids in Oklahoma City, which opened in May, pumps municipal drinking water through an artificial whitewater course. But Elizabeth Laurent, a spokesperson for Riversport Rapids, says the facility uses a drum filter system that puts water through a gradation of screens. It also disinfects water with ozone and chlorine rather than ultraviolet radiation. There's also a closed-loop whitewater park in western Maryland, Adventure Sports Center International, which uses water from a lake rather than municipal water. The county inspects the water during its twice-monthly water tests of E. coli bacteria at bathing beaches.
In a public statement posted on its website, USNWC stated that health officials have always considered and treated the whitewater system at the USNWC as a natural system. The USNWC also indicated that as part of its agreement with the county, it conducts weekly water quality tests, and that North Carolina swimming pool standards do not call for the testing of the Naegleria fowleri amoeba.
Bill Hearn of Massachusetts, an active slalom racer who was on the USA Slalom and Wildwater teams in the 1980s and '90s, has visited the USNWC twice. While he didn't go paddling, he said he noticed clumps of algae in the water.
Hearn says he believes that the tragedy that happened at the USNWC is a case of both devastating bad luck and negligence. "Many of the places where I've trained and paddled over the years have had fairly filthy water," he says. "Water quality isn't what it could be in most places. But in a recirculating, artificial course like in Charlotte, it's designed and engineered to have controllable conditions. It's in the best interest of paddlers everywhere to demand accountability as far as having clean water, and make sure the people running these artificial courses do it right."
This story continues to unfold as the USNWC works with health officials to determine how to best improve water quality and minimize risks related to the amoeba. Many challenges remain though, as very little is known about this potentially deadly organism. The USNWC indicates that there will always remain a risk of exposure despite every effort possible to change that fact. "As with all risk, our goal at the USNWC is to manage the risk as effectively as possible."
The Health and Human Services Department has some basic measures you can take to protect yourself from infection:
• "Limit the amount of water going up your nose. Hold your nose shut, use nose clips, or keep your head above water when taking part in warm freshwater-related activities."
• "Avoid water-related activities in warm fresh water during periods of high water temperature and low water levels."
• "Avoid digging in, or stirring up, the sediment while taking part in water-related activities in shallow, warm fresh water areas."
• There is also a new drug on the market called miltefosine that that has been used to successfully treat a few isolated cases of the Primary Amebic Meningoencephalitis infection. Until recently, the drug, known by the brand name Impavido and approved by health officials in 2014, was available only through the CDC and had to be shipped to hospitals in emergencies on a case-by-case basis. The Amoeba Awareness Foundation has been working to make the drug available across the country.
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