The smallest organism can be the deadliest in South Carolina's rivers, lakes

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - It's a hidden danger below the water's surface you never knew was there, just as common as peaches in South Carolina.

It's called naegleria fowleri. What is it? It's a single-celled living organism found in the sediment at the bottom of waterways. If it's forced up the nose through bone into brain tissue like Blake Driggers' case, it can cut life tragically short.

"Every day has been a struggle. The 17th of this month will be a year," said Blake's mother, Gingi Driggers.

"It's usually 7 to 14 days gestation period and exactly 14 days our son passed away from it," said Walt Driggers, Blake's father.

Blake did nothing more than any other child, jumping off the dock at Lake Marion in what doctor's call a perfect storm.

"I was wondering to myself, maybe if I turned the clock back a year and had never heard of this amoeba and maybe read about an incident where this child had contracted the amoeba, would I take it serious enough if we were going to the lake to put on a nose plug on my child? And I was like, you don't think it can happen to you, and you think well, that was a terrible thing that happened, but you don't really take it serious until it happened to you sometimes," said Gingi.

But it is serious. We found DHEC tests lakes and rivers, but only every other month, and not for this amoeba. The results are published in a report to the EPA every two years. In fact, 2012's results were just released in May.

We asked an intern to go online looking for results after 20 minutes, she couldn't find them on DHEC's website. DHEC says assume this ameba is in every river and lake.

"If you go and look at any body of water for bacteria, a specific form of bacteria, you're probably going to find it," said DHEC's Jim Beasley.

When is the greatest risk? Right now in the summer months of July, August, and September.  The amoeba prefers warmer, shallow water where children often play.

"Teach your kids not to get into the sand, to get into the dirt and muck up the water around where you're going to be swimming because that is where the amoeba lives, so if you get in there and sift through the dirt, then that just has the amoeba to float in the water," said Dr. Anna Kathryn-Rye.

"You would be surprised about how many people are on the water and get a little cut or scrape and get a bruise someplace and end up having bone infections from that," said Kathryn-Rye.

For Get Your Gear On co-owner Hartley Barber a canoe ride, resulted in a ear, nose, and throat infection years ago, not once, but twice.

Despite a 99 percent death rate, it's 100 percent preventable.

"If you're jumping off a dock, jumping off the side of the bank, whatever, getting out of a boat jumping in the water, you need to either use nose plugs or plug your nose like this and jump into the water," said Kathryn-Rye.

South Carolina's waters can also cause bone infections.

"You would be surprised about how many people are on the water and get a little cut or scrape and get a bruise someplace and end up having bone infections from that," said Kathryn-Rye.

For Get Your Gear On co-owner Hartley Barber, a canoe ride resulted in an ear, nose, and throat infection years ago -- not once, but twice.

"The first time, I just thought I was really healthy and was going to beat it on my own and thought that I had," said Barber. "Then I got back in the water a few weeks later and it kicked back in full storm. So that was when I went to the doctor."

What are the health risks in South Carolina's waters? The EPA requires state's to monitor water quality. Right now, the most recent list sent to the EPA has 32 different recreation spots just here in the Midlands where fecal coliform and E-coli levels are greater than what's acceptable.

"We're looking for the fecal coliform, the E-coli that type of thing, because that usually is most associated with a public health risk," said Beasley.

DHEC warns on their website while South Carolina's water quality is generally good, they can't guarantee you won't get sick from swimming at a local swimming hole, claiming, "There's always some risk swimming in natural waters."

Conagree Riverkeeper Bill Stangler found that risk two weeks ago.

"We found some really high bacteria levels on two streams Stoops Creek and Smith Branch," said Stangler.

How high?

"Ten times the allowable standard for contact recreation, so things like kayaking, wading, or swimming would not be advised in those waters because of the bacteria levels that we saw," said Stangler.

E-coli levels were also above where they should have been on the Congaree River and Gills Creek. It's not just a one time problem, we found on the EPA's list the same rivers and lakes, appear on the 2010 report and the 2008 report.

Right now, DHEC does post swimming advisory signs in areas where tests show high amounts of bacteria that could pose a risk to your health.

"We certainly hope people will heed those particular signs, pay attention to any warning that exists there," said Beasley.

There are permanent swimming advisory signs on the Congaree River at the Cayce Riverwalk and in Granby Park, but it's not just lakes and rivers.  You likely never thought of checking the water quality at the beach before booking the family vacation but a simple cut on the beach where thousands of organisms live. Stangler worries those permanent signs don't go far enough.

"A permanent sign that doesn't change doesn't do much to dissuade someone if the sign's there when the water quality is good and the water quality is bad," said Stangler.

When we checked the beach monitors on DHEC's website, the most recent data we could find in Myrtle Beach was June 18, more than a month ago and well before the busy Fourth of July holiday. Results for beaches in Charleston come less frequent with two or three samples drawn in May and June, nothing before or after those months.

The frequency at which we test a beach for bacteria levels depends on the amount of traffic that beach receives.

It's all a result of state budget reductions, cutting the state's inspections in half for lakes and rivers and at beaches only when they're busy, which is probably too late.

"Their budgets for water quality sampling have been cut and we're seeing the results on the ground," said Stangler.

Stangler believes you should have access to current water quality information before you make a trip out to the river or lake.

"Let's get this stuff online and mobile platforms and have people really get real time update on what water quality is like," said Stangler.

It has to be something you think about, after all, it's your health at risk, which is why it's important to heed the posted warnings.

In the meantime, the Driggers have started an awareness campaign. The campaign's first billboard is in Sumter on Highway 378. Their golf cart carries Blake's picture and the statistics.

"He would want people to be safe," said Gingi. "He cared about people, and I think through all of this first he'd want people to be safe when they're out having fun with their family and I think second he would want people to know about Christ."

The Driggers hope one day to post signs near waterways about the amoeba.

While what happened to Blake is rare, the Driggers don't want anyone else to lose a loved one. Deciding on an autopsy was rough, but it's given researchers a breakthrough with a disease they know little about.

"They were thinking it only stayed up in the brain so Blake's autopsy was a big breakthrough as far as knowing it kicks throughout the body," said Gingi.

The Driggers are working with another family in Texas to provide nose clips to summer camps throughout the state, hoping to protect more children, but they say parents should do their part about knowing what dangers lurk below of the surface of the state's lakes and rivers.

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