By Michael Casey And Steve Leblanc in Worcester – The Associated Press
The family of a teenager who died after eating an extremely spicy tortilla chip as part of a social media challenge will gather to remember the promising basketball player at a vigil Friday while they await word from Massachusetts authorities about what caused his death.
Harris Wolobah died on Sept. 1 and an autopsy is pending. But the 14-year-old’s family blamed the One Chip Challenge, which requires participants to eat the spicy chip and see how long they can go without consuming other food and water.
Since his death, Texas-based manufacturer Paqui has asked retailers to stop selling the individually wrapped chips, a step 7-Eleven has already taken. Walgreens said Friday it was removing the chip from its stores, and Amazon halted sales and was notifying customers who bought the product recently that Paqui was recalling it.
The One Chip Challenge chip sells for about $10 and comes wrapped in a sealed foil pouch that is enclosed in a coffin-shaped cardboard box. The package warns the chip is made for the “vengeful pleasure of intense heat and pain,” is intended for adults and should be kept out of reach of children.
Paqui, a subsidiary of The Hershey Company, said in a statement posted on its website Thursday that it was “deeply saddened by the death” of Wolobah.
“We have seen an increase in teens and other individuals not heeding these warnings,” the company said. “As a result, while the product continues to adhere to food safety standards, out of abundance of caution, we are actively working with retailers to remove the product from shelves.”
Authorities in Massachusetts also responded to the teen’s family’s accusations by warning parents about the challenge, which is popular on social media sites such as TikTok.
Scores of people, including children, post videos of themselves unwrapping the packaging, eating the spicy chips and then reacting to the heat. Some videos show people gagging, coughing and begging for water.
“We urge parents to discuss this with their children and advise them not to partake in this activity,” Worcester County District Attorney Joseph Early said in a series of posts about the challenge on the social network X, formerly known as Twitter. “The company warnings state the chips are intended for adult consumption. Other states across the country have seen hospitalizations due to the chip challenge, including teens.”
A 10-year-old Florida girl was suspended this week for bringing the Paqui chip to school, her father, D’Anton Patrick, told West Palm Beach television station WPTV. Six children at Forest Park Elementary School needed medical attention after coming into contact with the chip Wednesday, according to the suspension letter sent the girl’s parents.
The girl’s 12-year-old brother bought the chip, but his mother made him throw it out, Patrick said. The girl fished it out of the garbage and brought it to school.
There have been reports from around the country of teens getting sick after taking part in the challenge, including three students from a California high school who were sent to a hospital. Paramedics were called to a Minnesota school last year when seven students fell ill after taking part in the challenge.
“You can have very mild symptoms like burning or tingling of the lips in the mouth, but you can also have more severe symptoms,” said Dr. Lauren Rice, the chief of pediatric emergency medicine at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, noting this is an opportunity for parents, coaches, teachers to learn about the various social media challenges out there that could pose dangers.
“This goes back to the ingredients that are used with the tortilla chip,” she continued. “There are some spices like capsaicin, which is a chemical ingredient that we use in things like pepper spray and so they are very strong chemicals and they can be very irritating. Some of the more severe symptoms that we see can be things like significant abdominal pain or nausea and vomiting.”
Dr. Peter Chai, an associate professor of emergency medicine and medical toxicology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, said the chips can be dangerous under certain circumstances.
“It’s possible eating these chips with high concentration of capsaicin could cause death,” Chai said. “It would really depend on the amount of capsaicin that an individual was exposed to. At high doses, it can lead to fatal dysrhythmia or irreversible injury to the heart.”
Police in Worcester, the state’s second-largest city, said in a statement that they were called to Wolobah’s house Friday afternoon and found him “unresponsive and not breathing.” He was transported to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
Family and friends of Wolobah believe the chips caused his death and his family called for the chips to be banned from store shelves. A vigil for the teen is planned for Friday evening at a park in Worcester in central Massachusetts.
“The chip is responsible in our eyes for whatever took place because he was a healthy kid,” said Douglas Hill, who runs the basketball league Wolobah played in and described him as a quiet teen whose family came to the U.S. from Liberia.
“The conversation now is about the chip, but there will be other challenges coming and we want to make sure children know they shouldn’t be participating in anything that could put them in harm’s way,” said Douglas, who organized a basketball event Saturday to honor the teen.
There is little doubt why someone would eat the chips.
In addition to its name, One Chip Challenge, the package lays out the challenge rules, which encourage the buyer to eat the entire chip, “wait as long as possible before drinking or eating anything” and post their reaction on social media. The packaging also asks how long can the individual last on a scale from one minute to one hour.
The back of the package warns buyers not to eat the chip if they are “sensitive to spicy foods, allergic to peppers, night shades or capsaicin or are pregnant or have any medical conditions.”
The warning adds that individuals should wash their hands after touching the chip and “seek medical assistance should you experience difficulty breathing, fainting or extended nausea.”
Banner image: (AP Photo/Steve LeBlanc)