E. coli tragedy in ‘98 changed water park safety
June 14 2003
Jordan Shook has trouble walking and talking because she had a stroke when she was 4 years old. Now 8, she works with a physical therapist, but her emotional recovery is more of a concern than her physical problems.
“Jordan doesn’t really like to go out anymore, and she’s very reserved around people,” said Judy Shook. “She prefers to stay in the house and watch videos or TV. I think that’s where she finds her security.”
Jordan’s stroke occurred while she was hospitalized with an E. coli infection.
She was one of 26 children stricken in 1998 by an E. coli outbreak in a kiddie pool at the White Water swim park in Cobb County, metro Atlanta’s best-known water park. Seven children were hospitalized and one died.
Today, families of the children who survived are quietly trying to move on with their lives.
But the legacy of the outbreak has led to sweeping changes in how water parks monitor and treat their water. In some cases, the kiddie pools have been scrapped in favor of fountain-type areas that have no standing water.
The park has not had any water quality violations since the 1998 outbreak, according to the Georgia Division of Public Health.
And Jimmy Tronco of Kennesaw had no doubt about his son’s safety when they were at White Water on Friday.
“I’m not worried about the quality of the water here,” he said. “I’ve seen them testing the water just about every hour since we’ve been here.”
That is just what the park owner—Six Flags Atlanta Properties, which bought the water park in 1999—was hoping to hear.
Six Flags spokesman Jim Taylor said workers make hourly water quality checks, and chlorine levels are kept higher than the state-required minimum. Since taking over, Six Flags has changed the way the water in the park is handled and monitored.
“It’s virtually impossible for those sorts of situations to happen again,” Taylor said of the outbreak.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the 1998 incident increased national awareness of water contamination. Even the lawyer who represented six families who sued agreed the outbreak led to positive changes.
“This incident has had an impact on every pool in the United States,” said Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney who also represented victims of the E. coli outbreak of 1993 at Jack in the Box restaurants in the Northwest.
“People are more aware of the need for proper pool cleaning and chlorinization,” Marler said.
Alison Osinski, whose Aquatic Consulting Services in San Diego works with companies that operate pools, has seen the effect of the White Water outbreak.
“Parks and pools are using new chemical monitoring and treatment equipment,” she said.
To date, that hasn’t been enough for Matthew Addison, who was among the White Water E. coli victims. The 8-year-old spent three weeks in a Louisville, Ky., hospital.
He’s back to normal now, and swims in a league at a local aquatic center. But he doesn’t visit water parks.
“We’re not ready to go back to the parks yet,” said his mother, Lisbeth Addison.
State and Cobb County health officials first became aware of a potential E. coli outbreak on June 19, 1998, when they learned both Jordan and McCall Akin, who later died from complications involving the infection, had visited White Water on June 11.
County and state health officials suspected the high E. coli levels caused by fecal matter in the kiddie pool were at fault.
By July 18, there were 26 confirmed cases of E. coli-caused illness in children ranging in age from 11 months to 12 years old.
They included the son of Walt Weiss, who was then a Braves shortstop.
The children were infected by a mutated strain of the bacteria that lives in cows’ intestines.
Although different strains of E. coli can be transmitted through other forms of contaminated food, the mutated strain is found in beef.
Many cases also arise from unpasteurized milk or juice and inadequate hand-washing.
Tainted beef was ruled out as the link between the White Water children because McCall Akin was a vegetarian. That helped experts focus on the pool water.
All pools have a small bacterial content, including fecal bacteria, and that is why chemicals, such as chlorine, are used to treat the water.
Based on the pattern of the illness and interviews with families of affected children, Georgia public health investigators focused on four days: June 11, 12, 17 and 18.
The park operators supplied information on their water tests of the kiddie pool for June 11, 12 and 18. There was no record supplied for June 17 testing.
On those three days on which testing occurred, the tests showed the kiddie pool had only one-quarter of the required chlorine content, said Dr. Paul Blake, the state public health chief epidemiologist.
Cobb health officials require a minimum 1 part chlorine per million parts water, and the park’s levels were at 0.25 parts chlorine on June 11, 12 and 18.
Chlorine is important
On June 20, a Cobb environmental health manager tested the pool water and shut the pool because the chlorine level was 0.5 parts per million, still only half the required level. The pool reopened the next day after passing inspection.
Twelve of the families affected by the White Water outbreak filed lawsuits against the park for negligence.
None of the lawsuits went to trial, and the last was settled for an undisclosed sum in December 2000, said Marler, the Seattle attorney.
As bad as the outbreak was, it brought positive changes.
“Our water parks are probably safer than most backyard pools,” said Taylor, the Six Flags spokesman.
White Water goes beyond state requirements for its chlorine ratio, to 3.2 to 3.5 parts per million parts water, and adjusts the water’s alkalinity to keep the chlorine at its most effective, Taylor said.
Automatic testing systems throughout the park constantly monitor chlorine levels and make adjustments when necessary, he said. In addition, teams of testers patrol the park, sampling each water area on an hourly basis.
The kiddie pool is gone. Children now splash about in a “zero depth pool,” with constantly moving water.
“There’s lots of small holes in the bottom of it, filtering,” Taylor said. “It’s not a tank of water. There’s no standing water.”
Also, all children younger than 3 are required to wear swim diapers.
While Taylor was willing to discuss the changes Six Flags has made since taking over the water park, he remained concerned that the mention of the E. coli outbreak, even as an anniversary story, would not be good for the company.
“Our business has been doing progressively better every year we operate this park,” said Taylor. “This is all despite recent setbacks in tourism and the economy in general. And with all due respect to the news reporting of the AJC, we know for a fact that bringing up this subject of prior ownership will take away from that progress. This story will hurt our business.”
Despite her daughter’s lingering health problems, Shook said she considers herself and her daughter fortunate.
“It’s still hard to talk about what happened, especially around this time of year,” Shook said. “But I am just so thankful for Jordan to be alive and breathing.”