Thousands of children play on restaurant playgrounds everyday in Lubbock but what types of germs are harboring on equipment, and most importantly how are restaurants cleaning areas to protect you and your children? We're asking those questions as we continue our four-week health investigation into the cleanliness of public places. NewsChannel 11 is putting restaurant playgrounds to the test.
"We always play on the playground when we go eat there," says Jennifer Allen. Jennifer and her two daughters Emily and Abby eat lunch at their favorite fast food restaurant and play at it's playground once a week. But six weeks ago, those visits changed. "She started getting some stomach cramping and then she started vomiting," says Jennifer. Four-year-old Emily was hospitalized with a stomach infection for three days and three weeks later, "We ate lunch at the same restaurant and they had played and then 24 hours later, Abby got sick the same way," explains Jennifer.
Doctors diagnosed 3-year-old Abby with the same infection but they say Emily was not contagious and they didn't get food poisoning, so doctors believe it was something the girls touched. "That was the only thing that was in common was that the day before they both got sick we had been at the same restaurant playing at the same playground," she says. Playground equipment kids ride, slide and grab everyday.
"It does concern me because I've never seen anybody clean it and I know that there are so many kids that play on this particular playground," says the concerned mother.
So we tested five restaurant playgrounds in Lubbock: McDonald's, Dairy Queen, Burger King, Chick-fil-A and Chuck E. Cheese. We went crawling through tunnels and slides to see what your children could be touching. After just four days, our samples grew more bacteria than our expert ever expected. "You can definitely see it's a lot more growth than what we've seen on door knobs and shopping cart handles," points out Rita Yee, University Medical Center microbiologist. This time she says the swabs were just plain dirty.
Let's start with McDonald's, where we found a large number of organisms growing on playground equipment. There were even some Rita couldn't identify. "I'm not sure what this white one is," she says. When collecting the samples, I found old french fries and burgers sitting on slides, which might explain this organism. "It's got some white chalky colonies on top," explains Rita. She says this growth is in between a bacteria and a fungus, one that could make you ill. "Respiratory infections like Bronchitis," she says.
Inside McDonald's we swabbed arcade handles and this is what we found. "This is the arcade handle, I did tape this one up because it does have a fungus growing," says Rita. She points out that fungus could trigger an allergic reaction.
We also found fungus at the Dairy Queen playground. Also growing at Dairy Queen: a variety of environmental and human bacteria. "They're all different sizes, shapes and colors. Actually some of the bacteria has spread over the plate," she shows us.
Moving on to Burger King. "This one is smelly," says Rita. So many organisms grew on this sample that it caused a foul-odor but most of the bacteria was environmental and not harmful.
The next restaurant had the dirtiest playground of them all. "Chick-fil-A is another one and this is an indoor play area but if you notice there is just as much bacteria, this is also one where the bacteria spread all over the plate," explains Rita. She says the cultures can contain viruses we don't see like the one that Emily and Abby experienced.
Chuck E. Cheese was the cleanest playground only growing human bacteria. "This one is more like skin type stuff," shows Rita but she says some of the organisms found at each of the playgrounds could make you sick. "Not to deter kids from playing on the playgrounds or anything, just to realize there is bacteria and dirt there," she says.
It's a realization that Jennifer Allen says came too late. She is now making sure her kids wash their hands after playing and even uses anti-bacterial gel. "It's made me a little more conscious about letting my kids play on the playground until I know for sure that something is being done about it and it's getting cleaner, I am a little more worried now," says Jennifer.
We called the restaurants we tested.
Hidden Hazards: Public Restroom Cleanliness
Hidden Hazards: Shopping Carts