If Erin Carr-Jordan were to write a "How I spent my summer vacation" piece, it might be labeled "not suitable for children."
That certainly is how the Arizona State professor and mother of four would describe the subject matter: play areas laden with dirt, mold and bacteria that she has been checking out at fast-food restaurants throughout the nation's heartland.
"Kids should not be playing in this," she said. "This shouldn't be happening at places that are supposed to be safe havens."
Over the past two months, Carr-Jordan has crawled through tubes, taken swab samples and shot video with her phone at scores of fast-food rec areas, including a McDonald's PlayPlace in south Minneapolis.
"It was really dirty, from a visual perspective, as are 90 percent of the ones that I've seen," she said. "Pretty much pervasively, they are in an unsafe condition. Someone asked me, 'What surprises you most?' What surprises me is when they're clean."
The manager of that McDonald's, Teela Williams, said the play areas are cleaned every night at closing time. In addition, she said, "Once a week, someone comes in to detail-clean them -- mats and tunnels, everything thoroughly."
Burger King officials told the Chicago Tribune that its standards require "daily, weekly and monthly cleaning of playground equipment, pads and foams," as well as professional cleaning on a quarterly basis. Chuck E. Cheese has eliminated ball pits, requires that "all existing play equipment is cleaned with sanitizer" and has hand sanitizer dispensers in its play zones.
Whatever the franchises are doing, it's not enough to satisfy Carr-Jordan, who is combining a cross-country trip with her husband and four children and the play-area once-overs.
It's a dirty job, and Carr-Jordan has decided that she has to do it.
A graduate professor and development psychologist, Carr-Jordan, 36, took on the creepy-crawly project after following one of her children through an Arizona McDonald's indoor playground last spring. She doesn't seek permission to check out the facilities.
"I do not ask because they'd say no, but no one has ever stopped me or even said anything at all," she said. "Any parent can go in there and shoot video of their kid. It's just me and my phone."
And culturette swabs, which she sends to an Arizona lab. In 20 tests so far, she said, the lab has found multiple strains of harmful bacteria and fungi.
Arizona microbiology professor Annissa Furr is working with Carr-Jordan to collect and analyze the data to spur legislators to act on the issue.
Minneapolis city spokesman Mat Laible confirmed that the state health code "doesn't address or include play areas, and so our environmental health folks look at the cleanliness of the facility in general but with a focus on the food service and preparation operations."
Carr-Jordan said there are "virtually no laws on the books" about sanitary conditions in the play areas.
"There is no state or federal law that pertains to the cleanliness of the inside of these [slides, tubes and other play areas]," she said. "It doesn't have to be sanitized. It doesn't have to be disinfected. It just has to look clean, which could be even more dangerous."
Material from the Chicago Tribune is included in this article.