Germs, Gunk, Goo: Indoor Playground Health Hazards
An Arizona mother of four, Erin M. Carr-Jordan, has started a nonprofit group called Kids Play Safe whose mission is to call for stricter legislative regulations for indoor play areas including McDonald’s PlayPlaces and the tube-slide, hanging-net-bridge play stuctures at Chuck E. Cheese. Carr-Jordan, a developmental psychology professor, has actually visited dozens of indoor playgrounds in 11 different states, taken samples and sent them to labs for microbial testing. Her findings? As the New York Times says:
…the widespread presence of an array of pathogens, from coliform bacteria to staphylococcus, at levels that experts said indicated that restaurants might not be disinfecting their playlands as diligently as they should.
One expert interviewed by the New York Times, Philip M. Tierno Jr., director of clinical microbiology and immunology at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York, said that he was not “shocked or blown out of the water” by what Carr-Jordan found. While noting that it is his business to study microbes, Tierno said that “There are very high counts, and that means these places are not cleaned properly or not cleaned at all.”
On hearing of Carr-Jordan’s concerns, McDonalds says that it has “stringent sanitizing procedures but had nonetheless assigned a team to review those procedures.”
Carr-Jordan started her Kids Play Safe campaign in April after she went into a Phoenix-area PlayPlace with her kids.
What she saw was alarming.
“My kids were going, ‘Yuck!’ ” she recalled of the scene, which she videotaped with her cellphone and posted on YouTube. “It was gross and sticky. There were curse words and gang graffiti. The windows were black. There was matted hair and an abandoned Band-Aid.”
Despite complaints to the manager and several follow-up visits, the play area was not cleaned, she said.
I can attest to what Carr-Jordan found. Back in the days when my 14-year-old son Charlie wasn’t 5′ 10″, we used to visit McDonalds PlayPlaces regularly as they offered a chance (especially when it was winter or the height of summer) for him to interact with other children. Charlie often needed some help to make his way through the maze-like PlayPlace — he’s autistic, had some gross motor delays when he was younger and has always needed extra time to “process” and figure out what’s going on around him — so I used to climb up into the PlayPlace with him. I’m not quite 5 feet tall, so it wasn’t too much of a squeeze for me. But I can assure you that I saw everything Carr-Jordan describes along with wads of gum, gunk of various sorts, a French fry: You’re not supposed to bring food into the play area but rarely did a PlayPlace we frequented have an employee reminding children and their parents about the rules.
While we of course saw employees cleaning tables and trays, we couldn’t help but come to the same conclusion as Tierno that the PlayPlace was “not cleaned properly or not cleaned at all.” Had we not found PlayPlaces a good setting for Charlie to meet other children when outdoor playgrounds were not an option, we would have stopped taking him to the PlayPlaces for good.
The New York Times says that, so far, Carr-Jordan’s calls to local and national health officials have not resulted in any investigation:
A C.D.C. spokeswoman, Bernadette Burden, said the federal agency would get involved only if called in by state officials concerned about a major disease breakout. In Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, the Environmental Services Department considers play areas nonfood areas, and thus less of a priority during inspections than other parts of restaurants, said Johnny Diloné, a spokesman.
Carr-Jordan says she’ll continue her campaign. There’s a petition to help ensure children have clean and safe places to play. She has tested at least 50 indoor play areas so far and continues to do so. Out of all of those, she has only found one (at a Chick-fil-A restaurant near her home) that is free of pathogens.
Do we need local and/or national regulations about indoor playground cleanliness?
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