The kids may have a blast at those fast-food restaurant playgrounds — but so did kids the day before, and the day before and the day before. So who's making sure they're kept clean?
There are no national guidelines, and within states, counties and cities, oversight often falls through the cracks: Health departments may inspect restaurants for cleanliness and food safety but not necessarily the play areas.
This really steams mother of four Erin Carr-Jordan of Chandler, Ariz., who has embarked on a crusade after encountering what she called unacceptable conditions at a McDonald's play area in Tempe.
"It was disgusting," she says. "Stuff was smeared everywhere. Hair was stuck in the corners. It smelled terrible, and you couldn't see out of the Plexiglass because of the filth."
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Since then, she's visited play areas at McDonald's, Burger King, Chuck E. Cheese and more in Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois. She says she's found equally offensive conditions in every state.
Wherever she travels, she takes swabs off the play structures — tunnels and other places where kids put their hands and feet — and sends them to a contract laboratory to be tested for the presence of potentially harmful bacteria. So far, she says, the samples she's collected from playgrounds have tested positive for coliform bacteria indicative of fecal contamination, as well as strains of staphylococcus and streptococcus.
A woman on a mission, she's even put up a YouTube video about her campaign.
"Kids need a safe place to play," says Carr-Jordan, a developmental psychologist, who is contacting politicians across the country to try to enact legislation.
How worried should parents be? Though detecting potential pathogens in play lands may sound nasty, these reports don't tell you too much, says Stuart Levy, a microbiologist at Tufts University. After all, these places are exposed to a lot of saliva and skin, which naturally have a lot of bacteria on them.
"You can't make a conclusion about the relative danger from the bacteria mentioned" in her report, Levy says.
Experts also note that Carr-Jordan hasn't detected dangerous bacteria such as MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), salmonella, listeria, shigella and pathogenic strains of E. coli and Neisseria, which would be greater cause for concern.
Contact with bacteria isn't necessarily bad, says Carlos Lerner, a pediatrician at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. Exposure to bacteria helps the immune system develop normally. E. coli in the intestine helps to digest food and produce vitamin K and amino acids, the building blocks of proteins.
"What's missing from these analyses is viruses, like the flu and the common cold, which kids are particularly good at transmitting," Lerner adds. Carr-Jordan says she plans to start testing for viruses soon.
Though Carr-Jordan's germy-play-area reports don't prove that kids are in jeopardy each time they leap into that cage of colored balls, infectious disease experts agree that it only makes sense they're kept hygienic.
"They should be cleaned, if not daily, at least several times a week," Levy says.