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Bacteria! Bacteria in the Ball Pit!

For the family undertaking a long road trip, a McDonald's restaurant outfitted with an indoor playland is an oasis in the interstate desert. These food and fun factories offer something for everyone. Kids get to release pent-up energy after being cooped up in the backseat, parents get a brief respite from their fidgety, nagging children, and McDonald's gets to sell a few Happy Meals and Big Macs. It's a seemingly worry-free, win-win-win situation.

But Dr. Erin Carr-Jordan, a professor at Arizona State University, wasn't so sure. So last year, she bought agar plates, jumped into the rainbow ball pit at her local McDonald's, and started swabbing for bacteria. What she found was somewhat disgusting. Carr told CBS News:

We found stuff that causes meningitis, food-borne illness, skin, hair, eye infections... fecal contamination, coliforms, quite a few things can make children ill, and several of which are multi-drug resistant and potentially fatal.

Carr-Jordan's exploits garnered some notoriety last fall, and they also got her banned from a host of McDonald's restaurants in Phoenix, Arizona. The franchise undoubtedly was not too enthused with her findings, which revealed the presence of high amounts of unfriendly bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus and coliforms.

Kids-Ball-Pit-649.jpgWhat other dangers lurk in the ball pit?

To be honest, these findings really should come as no surprise. Whenever you mix greasy fast food and prepubescent children, especially in a location that promotes rambunctious behavior, things are bound to get messy. In fact, I would hazard a guess that at any given time during a Playland's normal hours of operation, there are at least two half-eaten pieces of chicken nugget lurking at the bottom of the ball pit, at least three snot stains defacing the tunnel tubes, and almost certainly a fair amount of fecal coliforms befouling the twisty slide. It's just a "recreational hazard."

Besides, it's likely that you could find the same pathogens on toilet seats and bathroom door handles. There's no reason to believe that McDonald's Playland is uniquely dirty. Even fecal coliforms are everywhere. Think of all the people you have intimate contact with on a daily basis -- then ask yourself, "How many of them properly washed their hands after leaving the bathroom?"

This frankness may not be to the liking of many a parent, who might prefer that their children frolic in bastions of cleanliness and not be exposed to such filth. To them, I would refer the Hygiene Hypothesis, which states that an excessively clean lifestyle may actually weaken our immune systems.

Make no mistake, fast food restaurants need to cleanse their indoor play pens. And if particularly nasty pathogens are detected -- such as those that cause meningitis -- they should be cleaned with antiseptics. But, in general, parents need not worry: A little grime is probably good for the kiddies.