Earlier this year, a 12-year-old Arkansas girl, Kali Hardig, contracted an extremely rare brain-eating amoeba at Little Rock’s Willow Springs Water Park, and lay in the hospital fighting for her life.
The nation followed the horrific story closely, and Kali is now on the mend, one of only two survivors of naegleria fowleri in the past 50 years.
The often unreported — or buried — part of the story, is that the waterpark in question received its water from a freshwater lake nearby. Readers who glanced at headlines and portions of the news coverage easily assumed that all waterparks posed a health risk. Even our own publication was guilty of under-reporting the facts.
Unlike traditional waterparks that are treated with chlorine and are quite safe, Willow Springs used untreated pond water to power its slides. The brain-eating amoeba naegleria fowleri resides in ponds and lakes in the southeastern United States, and becomes activated when water temperatures reach 80 degrees. The organism enters through the nose and usually causes death within one to 12 days.
Traditional waterparks treat their water even more aggressively than public pools. “We often see wave, lazy river and landing pools with two- to three-hour turnovers vs. the typical six-hour turnover we see on conventional pools,” said Rich Young, owner of Saratoga, Calif.-based Aquatic Commercial Consulting. “This means that the filter and any other outboard treatment system process the water two to three times as often.”
Many parks also now use chemical automation, ensuring that chlorine residuals and pool water pH are maintained to pre-set, desired values minute by minute. In addition, a secondary level of defense exists in the equipment room, where ozone or UV systems supplement the chlorine.
And while Kardig, the true victim of the story, is still in the process of recovering — unfortunately, some waterparks that took a hit from the initial news coverage may also be doing the same.