GATLINBURG, TN (WATE) – The Tennessee Department of Health says local testing has confirmed E.coli in well water at a zipline attraction in Sevier County following an outbreak of gastrointestinal illness among visitors.
The health department says testing showed E. coli and total coliforms in well water at CLIMB Works Zipline Canopy Tour. More testing is underway in Nashville.
Total coliforms include bacteria that are found in the soil, in water that has been influenced by surface water, and in human or animal waste. Fecal coliforms are the group of the total coliforms that are considered to be present specifically in the gut and feces of warm-blooded animals.
The state department of health says nearly 3,000 surveys were sent out to people who had booked zipline tours online with CLIMB Works since mid-June. As of Tuesday morning, 808 people had responded with 548 people from multiple states reporting illness, including diarrhea and vomiting.
State and local health investigators are working with the company to identify additional cases, what caused the illnesses and keep more people from getting sick.
State health officials say CLIMB Works has taken appropriate steps and closed temporarily, but has resumed routine operations.
The East Tennessee Regional Health Department says it has taken samples of well water, but the tests are not back yet. A manager at CLIMB Works says they're not sure what's causing the illnesses, but they have stopped using and distributing water at the attraction.
CLIMB Works manager Brian Turley says 108 visitors called the business directly to report sickness. He says most of them called, not for a refund, but to inform the business of potential issues.
Turley says they are offering refunds for anyone affected with illness.
Speaking with WATE 6 On Your Side, Turley shared a message for visitors:
“We are so sorry. We obviously had no idea or we never would have never let you [visitors] drink our water. We had no idea. It’s so frustrating it wasn't something we didn't catch sooner," said Turley.
They plan to add filters to their tanks and water coolers on Tuesday. The business says they plan to have swabs taken from its harnesses and countertops to check for anything they might find.
"If we had any part in making your group sick, we would like to do our best to make it right," said CLIMB Works on its Facebook page. "Please contact us directly so we can do our best to help the situation."
Turley also said employees drink the same water and some have become sick, calling it a "high probability" that the illnesses were linked to drinking the well water.
Some of the visitors that saw symptoms believe it started by drinking water.
"We had diarrhea, fatigue, violent vomiting, for probably six to eight hours each. Then it was just very lethargic, couldn't eat anything, take a sip of water," said Carlisle Cox, a visitor.
"We want to know what's wrong with us, some of us are feeling those symptoms and stomach pains. We need to know how to get this treated, what we need to do," said Emily Oney, another visitor at CLIMB Works within the last month.
Oney says six out of eight people in their group that attended the ziplining adventure showed symptoms and got sick.
Anyone who has visited CLIMB Works since June 15 and is currently experiencing gastrointestinal illness is asked to contact their health care provider and have stool testing performed.