Aug. 31, 2001 -- Any parent (and child) will tell you that a trip to McDonalds or Burger King isn't complete without bouncing around the ball pit. But while ball pits may look like good, clean fun, look a little closer. They're not necessarily clean and they can pose a variety of health and safety hazards.
The most common ball pit accident is a collision between two or more children, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission -- and typically these happen when one child is "hiding" in the balls. Most of these accidents result in bumps or bruises, but in 1995 a teenager was killed when he hid under the balls at the base of a slide and another child crashed down on top of him.
CPSC spokesman Scott Wolfson says most accidents in ball pits and other soft, contained play equipment used at indoor facilities can be avoiding by following some commonsense rules. For example, keep younger, smaller children separated from the older kids -- in a collision, the smaller child is likely to suffer a more serious injury.
Since it is easy to lose items in a ball pit, make sure you empty your child's pockets -- especially if the items have sharp edges that could pose a risk if they mix in with the balls. Likewise, remove jewelry and hanging strings that can get caught in mesh sides on play equipment.
Discourage your children from burying themselves in the balls, Wolfson advises, and make sure they don't linger around the bottom of slides or climbing equipment.
Beyond collisions, germs on the balls also cause concern.
Several manufacturers of ball pits suggest that the balls need to be washed at least once a week. A weekly washing is unlikely to eliminate all the germs, but a thorough washing of your child after a romp in the ball pit should go a long way toward overcoming any health risk.
Over the years, parents have been alarmed by several well-circulated urban legends about ball pits -- for instance, that kids in these play pits have died following hypodermic needle injections or bites from poisonous snakes. Although there is no truth to these stories, workers at ball pits have reported finding dirty diapers, half-eaten food, and, yes, even syringes among the balls. So it pays to ask if the pit is spot cleaned at least once a day.
In addition to these risks comes a report from Italy about children having nearly fatal reactions to latex in ball pits. Latex is a protein in rubber. Although the balls in the pits are made from plastic, the researchers say the foam padding on the floor of these pits is made of latex, which contaminates the balls the children play with. The study is reported in the August issue of the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.
Latex allergy can be serious, says New York University Medical Center allergy expert Clifford Bassett, MD. It takes several exposures to "sensitize" people to the point that they will have an allergic reaction, but, as he points out, most newborns have reached that sensitivity level from exposure to the rubber nipples on most baby bottles.
Once people are sensitized to latex, their reactions can range from poison ivy-like rashes to a very dangerous condition called anaphylaxis, which causes swelling that can block air from reaching the lungs. That's the type of reaction the Italian researchers saw in a 5-year-old girl and a 9-year-old boy.
Parents need to be alert to signs of allergic reactions in their kids following playtime in these pits, Bassett says -- and, of course, if the child is known to have latex allergies, he or she should avoid them altogether. As with concern about collisions, germs, and foreign objects, he says, let common sense guide your decision making.