On a humid Monday morning, Erin Carr-Jordan was crawling through the tubey slides of a McDonald's PlayPlace on the West Side.
When she got to the top of the colorful structure, she peered through a cloudy plastic window and mouthed the words: "This is bad. This is really bad."
In recent months the 36-year-old mom and developmental psychologist from Arizona said she has visited and videotaped more than 50 such playlands as well as sending swabs for microbial testing.
"Without a doubt, this was one of the worst and definitely in the top five," she said after climbing out of the tubes. "There was food everywhere."
A reporter crawled through a few minutes later to find sticky surfaces, filmy windows, several broken pieces of equipment, food morsels in every compartment, trapped hair, garbage and thick black schmutz in most crevices.
Carr-Jordan, who is combining her playland testing with a family road-trip vacation, says she has seen similar conditions in many restaurants across the country.
She's found that some fast-food companies regularly clean their playlands and are happy to provide customers with their cleaning protocols — she singles out Chick-fil-A — but that representatives of Burger King, Chuck E. Cheese's and McDonald's have either indicated they don't have any such protocols or have not responded.
Her activism began last spring after she followed her toddler through an Arizona McDonald's playground and was shocked by the filth. Several calls to the manager yielded no action, she said, so Carr-Jordan posted a video tour of the food- and graffiti-tainted structure on YouTube.
"It was unacceptable, completely unacceptable," said McDonald's spokeswoman Danya Proud, who said the video caught the attention of the restaurants' corporate offices in Oak Brook. "But it is not reflective of our business and our restaurants. As far as I'm concerned, it was an isolated matter. And we took immediate corrective action to thoroughly sanitize the PlayPlace."
McDonald's says it requires the facilities to be thoroughly cleaned each day and the area kept free of debris and soiled surfaces. Burger King said its standards require "daily, weekly and monthly cleaning of playground equipment, pads and foams," as well as professional cleaning on quarterly basis.
Chick-fil-A corporate spokesman Don Perry said there are regular cleaning schedules for the establishments that offer play areas. And Chuck E. Cheese's said it has eliminated ball pits, requires that "all existing play equipment is cleaned with sanitizer" and removes graffiti. Both of these companies noted that hand sanitizer is available at the playlands.
When the Tribune asked the companies whether they disinfect the areas with steam cleaning or other methods, none responded.
Carr-Jordan is videotaping and swabbing playlands in between visits to museums and friends as she travels cross country this summer with her husband and four children. Plans for her stay in Chicago included stops at the Field Museum, Navy Pier and at least three randomly chosen fast-food play areas.
She said she's found alarming conditions in rich and poor areas alike.
Joan Rose, a co-director of the Center for Advancing Microbial Risk Assessment at Michigan State University, said she is not familiar with Carr-Jordan's findings but stresses that places that serve children need disinfection policies.
"Kids often are exposed more (they put their hands in the mouth more often) and are also more vulnerable to more severe illness," Rose wrote in an email. "It is extremely important that the industry (like McDonald's), facilities themselves and states have good public health policies around cleaning and disinfection. These can be evaluated and monitored so we know we are achieving a safe environment for our kids."
University of Arizona professor Chuck Gerba, who is one of the nation's foremost authorities on germ transmission notes that children are major virus passers. "And viruses which cause diarrhea can survive up to a month on surfaces" such as playgrounds, he wrote in an email to the Tribune. "Bacteria like MRSA could also be transmitted by this route."
Carr-Jordan has been sending her swab samples to a lab that she said found staphylococcus and other bacteria. Annissa Furr, a microbiology professor in Arizona, is working with her to collect and analyze the data to spur legislators to act on the issue.
"One of the ultimate goals is to put regulations in place that would require cleaning these places once a week or month or whatever comes back as necessary," Furr said.
Public health departments currently inspect restaurants with food safety, not playground safety, in mind. Jose Munoz of the Chicago Department of Public Health said a city restaurant inspector could not cite a restaurant for a dirty playland.
"But our inspectors do monitor for insect and rodent activity throughout the facility," Munoz said. "And if it happens to be in that area, the establishment would be cited."
Furr, a professor at Maricopa County Community Colleges, said she is the mother of an immunocompromised 3-year-old, "which made me especially concerned about this matter because I know not to take her to places like this, but others don't."
Though germs are also found at outdoor playgrounds, Furr said fresh air, cold, heat, rain and the sun's UV rays can inhibit bacterial growth. But the closed, warm, moist, food-rich playlands "keep bacteria in a very happy environment," she said. "They're in their comfort zone where they can grow."
Being located in a restaurant adds to the risk, Furr said. "There is more potential for hand-to-mouth transmission," she said. "You often see kids go down the slide and immediately grab some food."
Carr-Jordan said her visit to the West Side McDonald's seems to indicate that the company's rules are not always followed. She'd like to see fast-food companies at least monitor and cite such locations.
In the meantime she plans to continue her summer tour of America's restaurant playgrounds, video camera and sterile swabs in hand.