There’s nothing more American than the county fair. From Washington and California to New York and Texas, countless millions of people are visiting their local fairs to ride the rides, feast on cotton candy and hot dogs, and to visit those cute farm animals.

Unfortunately, some of the visitors to fairs will get very sick. And the sickest ones, most of them small children, may be close to death before their doctors identify the cause – a relatively new strain of deadly bacteria known as E. coli O157:H7.

Most people identify this pathogen with undercooked hamburgers from fast food restaurants. But as a lawyer who has represented thousands of victims of food-borne illness, I have learned that people, especially children, can be infected in a variety of ways – including attending a local county fair or petting zoo.

Any place where people come into contact with farm animals must be considered high risk. The track record speaks for itself. Since 1995, thirteen outbreaks of E. coli O157:H7 have been reported at fairs and petting zoos. Thousands have been sickened. Many escape with a bad case of diarrhea and cramps. But some, mostly kids, have suffered permanent damage to their kidneys.
And some have died.

A year ago, at least 82 people became sick after attending the Lane County Fair in Eugene, Oregon. Most were young children, and 22 of them were hospitalized – twelve with kidney failure.

Oregon Health Services eventually traced the infections to the goat and sheep exposition hall, and investigators believe the bacteria were possibly transmitted through the ventilation system.

In 2000, at least five children were sickened after visiting a petting zoo in Snohomish County, Washington. The cause was not determined, but the children ate their lunches after petting the animals.

In August of 1998, at least 781 people became ill after attending a fair in Washington County, near Albany, New York. Of those, 71 were hospitalized and two eventually died from kidney failure. The cause: water contaminated by a neighboring farm.

The list goes on — Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Ohio, each sickening people with a bacterium carried by livestock. In 2001 the CDC warned operators of petting zoos and county fairs to clean up.

Nonetheless, lessons from previous outbreaks are not being learned. Those farm animals may be cute, but they also can carry a deadly pathogen. A recent United States Department of Agriculture study of over 20 County Fairs found E. coli O157:H7 in 13.8 percent of beef cattle, 5.9 percent of dairy cattle, and slightly smaller percentages of sheep, pigs and goats – nearly the same percentages found in animals in feed lots.

This toxin, in effect, targets small children, burrowing into their intestines and leading eventually to kidney failure. Most adults will recover, but many children won’t.

Imagine how government would respond if the same number of people had been injured from falling off merry-go-rounds. Those wooden horses would grind to a halt and the lawyers would have a field day.

But when people suffer from E. coli O157:H7 poisoning, the fair-related outbreaks are ignored.

This does make good business for lawyers like me. But I’ll gladly give up that business if it means not having to see four-year-olds hooked up to kidney dialysis machines.

So what do we do? Banish the county fair? Of course not. But fair organizers can take some rather simple and inexpensive precautions.

First, they need to clean up their act. Sanitize walkways and railings, and provide ample hand-washing areas for both employees and visitors.

Second, stop selling or allowing food in close proximity to areas where animals are on display.

Third, increase ventilation of buildings to reduce the risk of airborne contamination. Keep livestock areas damp with an approved disinfectant.

Fourth, they should screen all display animals for E. coli O157:H7 – or require that exhibitors show proof their animals are pathogen free.

Finally, educate visitors. Post signs that explain to parents the importance of hand-washing before and after visiting the animals. Post tough warnings at the entrances, emphasizing the risks to small children.

Perhaps these precautions won’t eliminate the risk to public health. But, for a minimal investment, organizers can reduce the risk of sending kids to the hospital – or worse. And, at the same time, they can put lawyers like me out of business.