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Nearly 550 sickened by E. coli in visits to Gatlinburg zipline park. How did it happen?

A Tennessee Department of Health investigation has determined that illnesses reported by people who recently visited a Gatlinburg mountain zipline park were caused by E. coli bacteria in water coolers.
A Tennessee Department of Health investigation has determined that illnesses reported by people who recently visited a Gatlinburg mountain zipline park were caused by E. coli bacteria in water coolers. Image of the Great Smoky Mountains Courtesy of Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism/TNS

After nearly 550 people reported becoming ill after visiting a Gatlinburg zipline and mountain park, a Tennessee Department of Health investigation has determined the sickness was caused by contaminated water, according to media reports.

In the Facebook reviews for CLIMB Works Smoky Mountains, several customers said that they had gotten sick after visiting the park. One reviewer, Emily Oney, said the tour with the park was fine, but that her group of eight people became very sick the next day.

In a response to Oney's review over the weekend, CLIMB Works Smoky Mountains said they were working with the local health department to pinpoint the cause of the illnesses.

By Tuesday, the Tennessee Department of Health had determined that there was E. coli bacteria in water given to guests at the park, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel.

During the investigation, the health department emailed surveys to people who'd been to the park asking if they'd been sick afterward, the Knoxville News Sentinel reported. Of more than 800 who responded, 548 said they'd become ill after their visits.

CLIMB Works is offering refunds to anyone who was affected by the illness, according to WATE News out of Knoxville. The park also told the news station that they plan to add filters to their water tanks and coolers.

Symptoms of those infected by harmful E. coli, a bacteria that lives in intestines, include diarrhea, abdominal cramping, nausea and vomiting, according to the Mayo Clinic. E. coli infection is often caused by contaminated water or foods, such as beef, unpasteurized milk or produce.

The Gatlinburg area of Tennessee is a popular destination for Kentuckians. In a ranking posted on a Tennessee tourism website "Visit My Smokies" in 2016, Lexington was listed as having the third highest number of travelers to Pigeon Forge, which is just a few miles north of Gatlinburg.

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