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Ariz. mom’s efforts service fast food play areas

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Erin Carr-Jordan in a fast-food restaurant (Chick-fil-A) play area Monday, June 6, 2011 in Chandler. She has launched a crusade against unsanitary play areas and is pushing for tougher health regulations.

Erin Carr-Jordan in a fast-food restaurant (Chick-fil-A) play area Monday, June 6, 2011 in Chandler. She has launched a crusade against unsanitary play areas and is pushing for tougher health regulations.

Arizona Republic, David Kadlubowski, Associated Press

PHOENIX — Her outrage against a local fast-food restaurant's unsanitary play area has turned into a national crusade for Chandler resident Erin Carr Jordan.

The mother of four, an Arizona State University instructor with a Ph.D. in developmental psychology, included filth-swabbing and bacteria-testing across six states in her summer-vacation travels.

Between family visits to museums and scenic attractions, she probed fast-food sites in California, Colorado, New Mexico, Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin, then had samples tested by microbiology labs and reported her findings to local health agencies and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

What Carr Jordan learned when she returned to Arizona earlier this month was that her cross-country samples contained frightening pathogens that can cause diarrhea, skin infections and meningitis. And the reaction of regulatory agencies in Arizona and the other states was disappointing. "It has been really disconcerting because I can't make them do anything. Nobody seems to be paying attention," she said. "They all say the same thing: 'Our hands are tied.' "

Most told her they had no jurisdiction and play areas aren't regulated by local food-handling and restaurant cleanliness rules. Lola Russell, spokeswoman for the CDC in Atlanta, said the federal agency has no authority over local health inspections and would step in only if a state or county asked it to or if there was a disease outbreak.

Now, Carr Jordan is on a mission to toughen government oversight of restaurant playgrounds nationwide. She contacted media in her travels, and her story has appeared in several newspapers.

Her campaign started a few months ago when she was so disgusted by the condition of a Tempe McDonald's PlayPlace she visited with her children that she crawled inside the colorful tunnels to film the grime, spent about $700 having it tested by a lab and posted her experience on YouTube. "Inside I saw filth and grime coupled with clumps of dirt, matted hair and rotting food. ... The entire structure was riddled with swear words and gang signs," she said.

She complained and notified the manager, but when the play area was still dirty days later, she collected samples of the grime and paid to have them tested by a local laboratory. She was told they contained pathogens found in fecal material and mucus as well as in hair and food and that they can could skin infections and abscesses.

At the time, a McDonald's spokesman said steps were being taken to make sure the Tempe restaurant's play area was clean but declined to provide details.

Maricopa County Environmental Services inspects restaurants for health-code compliance, which includes a visual inspection of indoor playgrounds, said Johnny Dilone, spokesman for the department. However, playgrounds must only appear clean to pass the inspection, and a dirty one is considered a minor "non-food" violation.

Charles Gerba, a University of Arizona professor with a Ph.D. in microbiology, doesn't know Carr Jordan but said it was well-known among experts in his field that children's playgrounds are one of the most germ-plagued environments and the pathogens can cause disease. Indoor playgrounds that tend to be warm and moist promote bacterial growth.

"If I had a small child, I'd be hesitant to let them play in there," he said.

Gerba, who co-authored a study of bacteria on public surfaces for the International Journal of Environmental Health Research, agrees that more stringent government health regulations governing cleanliness of restaurant playgrounds would help.

Information from: The Arizona Republic, http://www.azcentral.com