Like many moms, Erin Carr-Jordan took her family on a vacation this summer, stopping at museums, visiting with friends, and breaking up the drive with stops at fast-food play areas. But Carr-Jordan and her family didn't stop at those play areas to play.  With video camera and sterile swabs in hand, Carr-Jordan stopped at these locations to document the levels of cleanliness and safety for children.


Carr-Jordan's mission began last spring after she followed her toddler through an Arizona McDonald's playground and was immediately disgusted by the filth. In a facility where children are encouraged to play, she found grime, rotting food, clumps of hair and graffiti — and those were just the offenses she could see. After her numerous complaints went unheeded, Carr-Jordan posted a video of the facility on YouTube. She also swabbed the facility and sent her samples to a lab to be tested for germs and bacteria. She was shocked by the results.


Over the past year, the developmental psychologist — it's actually Dr. Carr-Jordan — has visited dozens of play areas around the country, videotaping conditions and swabbing the areas for microbial testing. In every state, she has found potentially dangerous pathogens including those that can cause meningitis, sepsis, hair, scalp and skin infections, abscesses, gastrointestinal disease/infection, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, food borne illness and more — all lurking on the touchable surfaces of kids' play areas. The results for each facility can be fund on her website, Kids Play Safe.  


Carr-Jordan is on a mission to educate parents about the hidden dangers in restaurant play areas and to spur legislation that would require regular, consistent cleaning and safety checks at these facilities. We recently spoke about her work and her advice to parents on keeping kids safe.


MNN: You're not a microbiologist by training, so what made you think of swabbing that first kids' play area and sending off your samples to a lab?  

Erin Carr-Jordan: I have a long-time friend and colleague who is a microbiologist. She holds a PhD and I have known her for almost 20 years. Over the years, I have learned quite a bit about her field through our interactions and oddly enough, it was a natural progression to ask if swabbing the inside of the playland would be a good idea. It is like having a best friend who is a realtor and asking her advice when you are looking for a new home. When I went inside the playland with the rotting food, garbage, band aid, filth, matted hair, curse words and graffiti, she was one of the first people I called (as a mom). When it became obvious that McDonald's wasn't going to clean the structure, I called her for her professional opinion.


Is there a particular restaurant or chain that you think does a better job than others of keeping their play areas safe and clean?

The results indicate that only one restaurant, Chick-fil-A in Chandler [Arizona] has bacterial levels that aren't dangerous and equipment that is well-maintained. Chuck E. Cheese is often filled with garbage and smells like urine; Burger King has the highest levels of mold and fungi and has the highest incidence of equipment in disrepair; McDonald's has equipment in disrepair, graffiti, and high bacterial and coliform (fecal) counts. In short, the vast majority pose a significant health and safety risk to children.


Are there precautions that parents can take to keep their kids safe in these kinds of play areas or should they just avoid them altogether?

Until there is regulation in place that requires establishments with indoor playlands to sanitize, disinfect, and maintain their equipment on a regular basis, parents, especially of younger children might want to avoid them. If they do choose to go to one of these establishments, ask the manager what the cleaning protocol is and when the last time it was cleaned was, look inside the tubes/slides etc. to see if it is visibly dirty or smells, and make sure that kids wash or sanitize their hands prior to eating.


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Log on to Carr-Jordan's website, Kids Play Safe, to see lab results from all over the country, watch the videos that she takes from inside the structures, and share your own experiences about restaurant play areas. Here's a look at one of Carr-Jordan's first videos documenting the filth and grime she found at a children's play area:

Appalled mom wages war on filthy play areas
Dr. Erin Carr-Jordan wants legislation to keep kids' play areas clean and safe.