Water Park Illnesses Tied to Low Chlorine Levels
State health officials will release a report today linking last summer's E. coli outbreak at White Water park to insufficient chlorine levels at the park --- a finding that attorneys said would bolster the arguments of four families suing the Cobb County facility over the illness.
More than two dozen children were infected with E. coli 0157:H7, with seven requiring hospitalization. One child, McCall Akin of Kennesaw, died. The 35-page report, compiled by the Department of Human Resources' Division of Public Health, said on three of the four days of the outbreak last June, chlorine levels were reported by park officials to be only 0.25 part chlorine per million parts water.
The county requires that public pools have a minimum chlorine level of 1 part per million. Chlorine, at a sufficient level, can kill E. coli fairly rapidly, scientists say. But at White Water, there was not enough of the chemical to protect children who ingested the deadly bacteria, the report said. "Even if the swimmer does not consciously drink the water, if the few drops that find their way into the swimmer's mouth (such as by licking the lips) have a few E. coli . . . bacteria, it can be enough to cause the disease," according to the report. However, the report noted, "neither shigella (a waterborne bacteria) nor E. coli outbreaks have been associated with swimming in pools shown to have been adequately chlorinated."
White Water attorney Billy Gunn said park officials were "not endorsing" the report. "We are not at all convinced the transmission took place in the water," Gunn said, saying some studies have shown that even a minimal amount of chlorine is effective in killing the bacteria. Four lawsuits have been filed against White Water on behalf of the families of Jordan Shook, 5, of Cartersville; Summer Kirkland, 4, of Duluth; Matthew Addison, 4, of Louisville, Ky.; and Erin Gray, 7, also of Cartersville.
Bill Marler, the Seattle attorney who is handling the cases, credited state health officials with providing a detailed evaluation. "Actually, this is one of the most thorough and best reports I've seen come out of a public health department," he said. "It's very good. Very evenhanded." The report also confirmed that although five of the 26 children could have been infected through person-to-person contact, most were sickened because of fecal contamination in a kiddie pool, said Dr. Paul Blake, the state's epidemiologist.
The report also reiterated that the park had a history of failing routine chlorine checks conducted by county health inspectors. The kiddie pool was checked eight times for chlorine from 1995 through 1997. On four occasions, chlorine levels were below the county standard, according to the report. White Water officials said on two of those four occasions, the park was closed. Gunn also said White Water should not be held responsible for last summer's outbreak because it did not introduce the bacteria into the park.
The report said investigators believe the first wave of infections occurred between 4:30 and 5:30 p.m. June 11. On three other days --- June 12, 17 and 18 --- other infections are believed to have occurred. "I think that the report gives all the details that we have on this whole investigation.
We tried to make it as correct as possible," said Blake. "And the results speak for themselves." State health officials will take no action, but White Water has changed many of its operations since the outbreak, including installing computerized chlorine-monitoring systems, offering free swim diapers, providing automatic toilet flushing and sink washing to avoid contamination of hands, and building a "zero-depth" pool for toddlers with sprinklers, slides and other water games so children can't ingest standing water.