The dangers of indoor play areas
December 3rd, 2011
01:03 AM ET

The dangers of indoor play areas

Children’s indoor play structures - such as those areas containing tubes, tunnels, slides, climbing ropes and webs, as well as inflatables and trampolines - have become modern day conveniences.

They're found in fast-food restaurants and pay-for-play establishments in neighborhoods around the globe. Moderate estimates indicate that in the United States alone there are more than 15,000 of these facilities in operation. At an average of 50 children per day, this means 750,000 children per day are playing 270,000,000 times per year in indoor play areas.

In the summer of 2011 an impromptu visit to a play area inside a fast-food establishment became the impetus for what is now my personal campaign to improve children’s health. During that visit my children and I saw broken and failing equipment, rotting food, obscene graffiti, grime and filth, and what we later learned was fecal contamination.

When multiple reports to management fell on deaf ears, I enlisted the help of a microbiologist and an analytical lab to discern whether the conditions - in addition to being visually disturbing - were deleterious to children’s health. Those results indicated a problem far greater than I ever imagined.

Not only did we find pathogens that could make children ill, we found bacteria that were potentially deadly.

To be sure the conditions were not unique to that location, I traveled all over the country taking video and swabs. In the past six months I have gathered data from six national chains, as well as several independently owned establishments. Locations were chosen at random and represented high and low socio-economic statuses in both rural and urban areas.

Among my bacterial findings: Staph aureus, Pseudomonas, E. coli, Bacillus cereus and Coliforms. These can cause everything from nausea and vomiting, to skin infections, meningitis and death. Maintenance problems I found included broken second-story windows, missing bolts and screws, unsecured platforms, failing Plexiglas, and shredded webbing.

Equally as important is the feedback I get from parents. In the past few months I have received hundreds of messages telling me about their child’s illness or injury. These stories are enough to spur anyone into action.

Armed with input from parents, pediatricians, family practitioners, microbiologists and my own background as a child and adolescent development specialist, I set out to correct the problem. Along with my partner, Dr. Annissa Furr, I formed Kids Play Safe. We are a non-profit organization formed to raise awareness, conduct microbiological testing and reach out to the media and legislators in hopes to influencing public policy and instituting change.

Additionally, I drafted the Kids Play Safe bill. The bill amends current health codes to include soft contained play areas. In essence it grants health inspectors the regulatory authority to inspect the play area and the equipment and to enforce penalties should a problem exist.

To date, two states (Illinois and California) have picked up the bill and in Arizona, Maricopa County is adjusting the verbiage in the current health code. We are also reaching out to state restaurant associations, hospital associations, and pediatric associations for support.

Toddlers, preschool and elementary school-aged children, because of their primary behavioral patterns and their underdeveloped immune systems, are considered a subset of the population highly susceptible to illness, injury, and infection.

The current lack of regulation related to cleaning and maintenance of indoor play areas represents an imminent health and safety risk that is easily correctable. Cleaning and maintenance should be regular, thorough and verifiable and should apply to all food establishments with designated play areas.

To us the bottom line is that children deserve safe places to play and we will continue to work diligently to ensure that happens.

For more on Erin Carr-Jordan, executive director of Kids Play Safe, watch “Sanjay Gupta, M.D." at 7:30 a.m. ET Saturday and Sunday.

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