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The Needle in the Ball Pit

Netlore Archive: Latest version of a hoary playground myth has a child dying from contact with a heroin-contaminated hypodermic needle in a fast-food restaurant ball pit.

Description: Email hoax / Urban legend
Circulating since: Nov. 1999
Status: False (see details below)

Email contributed by N. Brown, Nov. 3, 1999:

Hi, My name is Lauren Archer, my son Kevin and I lived in Sugarland, TX.

On October 2cd, 1994 I took my only son to McDonald's for his 3rd birthday. After he finished lunch, I allowed him to play in the ball pit. When he started whining later on, I asked him what was wrong, he pointed to the back of his pull-up and simply said "Mommy, it hurts."

But I couldn't find anything wrong with him at that time. I bathed him when we got home, and it was at that point when I found a welt on his left buttock. Upon investigating, it seemed as if there was something like a splinter under the welt. I made an appointment to have it taken out the next day, but soon he started vomiting and shaking, then his eyes rolled back into his head. From there, we went to the emergency room. He died later that night. It turned out that the welt on his buttock was the tip of a hypodermic needle that had broken off inside.

The autopsy revealed that Kevin had died from heroine overdose. The next week, the police removed the balls from the ball pit and lo and behold. There was rotten food, several hypodermic needles: some full; some used; knives, half-eaten candy, diapers, feces, and the stench of urine.

If a child is not safe in a child's play area then where? You can find the article on Kevin Archer in the October 10, 1994 issue of the Houston Chronicle.

Please forward this to all loving mothers!

Update: The specimen above is the earliest version of this text I received (Nov. 1999). In it, the needle-in-ball-pit incident is alleged to have occurred in Sugarland, Texas. Later variants specify the location as Midland (presumable in Texas) or "Midrand" (presumably a misspelling of "Midland").

Latter-day variants also list Discovery Zone and Chuck E. Cheese restaurant playgrounds as dangerous places for children to play unattended.

Analysis: Experience has taught me that as soon as I've debunked this unsubstantiated text I'll start getting emails from folks informing me that all sorts of nasty and potentially dangerous objects really do turn up in fast food restaurant play areas, particularly ball pits. So let me say at the outset that, yes, that is true — things like hypodermic needles can and do end up in playground ball pits. An incident like the one described above could conceivably happen. And parents should be discriminating when deciding where to let their kids play.

But this incident didn't happen.

So far as we know, Kevin Archer never existed, let alone died as the result of a "heroine" [sic] overdose after playing in a McDonald's ball pit. No such news story ever appeared in the Houston Chronicle (or the "Midrand Chronicle" or the "Midland Chronicle," neither of which actually exists).

See 1998's "Snakes in the Ball Pit" for the online progenitor of this hoax/legend. The two texts, both false, are strikingly similar. It's gruesome, I know, but people love to spread tall tales about children being injured or killed in places normally regarded by adults as "safe for kids." These stories about fast food restaurant playgrounds are variations on older legends about amusement parks (e.g., snakes in merry-go-round horses and razor blades in water slides). All are examples of cautionary tales warning parents to be vigilant. All are versions of every parent's worst nightmare.

McDonald's has responded to the current rumor with the following statement:

We have thoroughly investigated this rumor and it is absolutely not true. There have been no such incidents ever reported at any McDonald's. In addition, there has never been an article in any newspaper regarding this rumor.

Unfortunately these types of rumors bring unnecessary concerns for our customers. It is important to know that safety is a top priority at McDonald's, especially as it relates to children. We take many precautions to ensure our Playlands are safe.

As for the Houston Chronicle, the paper has been fielding inquiries about the tall tale since November 1999. Here's its editorial statement:

The "Kevin Archer" email being circulated these days is a hoax. There is nothing to be found in the archives. No such article appeared in this or any other newspaper on Oct. 10, 1994, or any other date as no such or similar incident ever has occurred here or been reported by any news service or in any medical or legal records.

Chronicle writer David Galloway debunked it again in his January 9, 2000 column, "Hoax Writers' Technique."

In February 2000, a source at the Midland Reporter-Telegram told me that they, too, were continuing to receive inquiries about the version of the hoax set in that city. A Feb. 3, 2000 article in the paper confirmed, yet again, that it's false.

Last updated: 09/12/06

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