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How Gross Are the Play Structures at Fast-Food Restaurants?

Photograph by Twenty20

Just how gross are those ball pits and other play spaces at fast food restaurants? In two words: It depends.

In every public space, you risk encountering some unsavory germs. Make it a place where children are present, and the risk skyrockets. Make it an enclosed, indoor place for kids where there’s also greasy, sticky fast food and you have yourself the makings of a real-life horror story. But do play spaces at fast-food restaurants really earn their germy reputation?

Sometimes, it’s just bad luck

Accidents happen—some are just a little grosser than others. Last summer, a New Hampshire mom experienced firsthand one of the risks of kids running wild in an indoor play space. She was at the McDonald’s in Manchester, New Hampshire, with her 5-year-old son.

"I was still eating and the next thing I knew he came out and just stated there was poop all inside the slide," Justina Whitmore told Boston 25 News. "When he came out, he was covered in poop." Another child’s diaper had leaked, and that child happened to go down the slide first.

Real talk: That poor lady, but there’s no way to predict such a incident.

There’s no shortage of similar horror stories

Versions of Whitmore’s story have surfaced before. The trick is to suss out which stories of this nature are true. Most involve a predictable (and unverifiable) plot line involving feces, urine, vomit or old food. One Redditor wrote, “Kids literally take their Happy Meals in there and forget ... 50% of the ball pit is in fact edible. 25% balls. 25% poop.”

Never doubt the power of a mom with a Ph.D., a swab—and a mission

In 2011, Dr. Erin Carr-Jordan, a professor of child development at Arizona State University and a mother of four, almost single-handedly gave the world a wakeup call about just how many germs hang out in fast food play areas. She was at a McDonald’s in Tempe, Arizona, with her 3-year-old, who needed to use the restroom. Carr-Jordan agreed to let her child play in the play structure—and that’s when she discovered rotting food in the crevices of the slide, graffiti and profanity, matted hair and a used Band-Aid. Disgusted, Carr-Jordan complained. In the end, she made her case six times to four different managers over the following month—all to no avail.

Carr-Jordan then made it her mission to check the cleanliness of fast-food play spaces throughout Arizona, sending swabs to a lab for analysis. Then she went around the country. She found evidence of Bacillus cereus, fecal coliforms, Enterobacter, multiple strains of Staphylococcus, Acinetobacter lwoffii and Acinetobacter baumannii. She even found gonorrhea.

Carr-Jordan didn’t target only McDonald’s. She randomly tested six national chains, and eventually founded Kids Play Safe, a nonprofit that pushes for legislation and regulations to protect kids from the germs, and other dangers, that lurk in these public play spaces.

The presence of gross bacteria is actually normal—even necessary

Here’s the sobering part: The presence of all those various strains of bacteria is actually not news at all. “I’m not shocked or blown out of the water, because this is my business,” a microbiologist told The New York Times, after reviewing Carr-Jordan’s results. The levels were high, sure, but the presence of bacteria in public places is to be expected.

“Contact with bacteria isn't necessarily bad,” another pediatrician told The Los Angeles Times. The article goes on to say that exposure to bacteria helps the immune system develop normally.

Not all play areas are the same

Carr-Jordan told Food Safety News that Chick-fil-A, for one, has a system in place to mitigate germs—sanitizing nightly, disinfecting bi-weekly and using steam to deep clean. Her local Chick-fil-A is the only fast-food restaurant where she lets her children play.

Don’t believe every study you read

"Invisible and deadly bacteria is everywhere" headlines sure do grab attention. One “study,” mentioned in a 2017 story in The Guardian, found that “99.9% of play areas, ball pits and toys in shared public spaces are ‘a hive of germs.’” Shocking, no? But upon actually reading the actual story, there’s no scientific basis for that number.

There are fewer and fewer play spaces, anyway

Just last year, a writer with Eater was bemoaning the disappearance of tunnel slides and ball pits at her local fast-food joints—even Chuck E. Cheese. During a recent renovation of a McDonald’s in Pennsylvania, the franchise owner lamented the fact that corporate made him get rid of the (quite popular) PlayPlace in the process. A “high-tech” McDonald’s in Tulsa, Oklahoma, flexes interactive touch screens over ball pits. Blame the widespread redesigns on trying to appeal to more modern (read: millennial) clientele.

The bottom line

As with just about everything, a parent can only control so much. The good news is that a lot of these issues around germs are easily managed. In the words of one expert, in a story for The Guardian, the time-tested habits are what count: “Children should always be expected to wash their hands before they handle and eat food, [and] after they’ve been to the toilet.”

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