SEATTLE -- Washington residents look forward to the state fair in Puyallup every year, but the swirling rides, unfamiliar food trucks and vast crowds can make some people nervous. Local experts are offering health and safety tips to ensure your fair-going experience is all you've been hoping for.
Fairs present some risk of animal-borne diseases like E. coli, most typically if people have contact with animals and then touch their face or mouth.
Dr. Tony Woodward, an emergency medicine specialist at Seattle Children's Hospital, advises all parents to make sure children never eat inside a petting zoo and always wash their hands immediately after leaving the animals. He recommends parents carry alcohol-based hand wipes, because they are faster and easier than traditional hand washing.
Nigel Turner, director of the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department Communicable Disease Control division, warns families that pigs can carry a strain of the flu, H3N2, which has also been found in humans. While no cases have been identified in Washington, Turner said fair visitors with weak immune systems might want to skip the pig pen.
In addition, Woodward cautions people to never pet animals at the fair unless they have permission from the vendor. Some animals on display may not be as clean or friendly as those in a petting zoo.
"In a fair environment it's important to recognize not all animals are there for petting," Woodward says. "They might be spooked and you may end up getting bit."
Fair rides tend to bring out the risk-taker in all of us, but Woodward says families should be especially careful of rides that travel from town to town.
"They can be risky because they're temporary," he says. "They're not inspected all the time, not firmly planted like full-time rides. For the providers, this may be a temporary job."
Woodward recommends families watch rides in action before getting on themselves. Keep an eye out for sharp edges, bolts sticking out, or anything that looks hazardous, he says.
While they may seem less precarious, Woodward says inflatable rides, such as bounce houses or slides, can be especially dangerous. If they're not in good condition the inflatables can collapse and expose children to hard structures.
Inflatables are especially dangerous if too many children, or children of differing ages, are playing on them.
"When you mix a 200-pound person and 4 year old you're going to have a problem," Woodward says. "That larger person is going to dictate the ride, and a child could get tossed out."
Christina Sherman, an environmental health specialist at the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, says food vendors at the fair undergo two days of pre-opening inspections. To make sure all food service is up to standard during the fair, she says there is a food safety specialist on the grounds at all times.
"We take food safety very, very seriously," Sherman says. "It's very important to them that every vendor is perfect."
Still, Woodward says there are warning signs that families should look for when choosing a food vendor. Make sure they're wearing hairnets and gloves. Look for hand sanitizer on site. If the vendors are eating in their trucks, don't go there.
"Use common sense," he says. "If it looks dirty it probably is."
Turner warns families that diseases like the flu, pertussis and measles can all be easily spread in large crowds. He recommends people always wash their hands, cover their cough and stay home when they feel sick.
"If you're having symptoms of respiratory disease the fair is not the best place for you," Turner said.
With so much happening at the fair, it can be tough to keep families members together. Woodward recommends kids use a buddy system. For older children, parents should set an alarm on teens' cell phones at "check in times."
Coming and going
Traveling to the fair can be challenging, but Woodward urges families to be patient and drive with caution, as others around you are likely in a hurry.
Parking lots at the fair can be especially hazardous. Woodward recommends families drive slowly and keep an eye out for wandering kids. When walking with your own children, keep them close.
"It's a really exciting time of year," Woodward said. "You get to see all our state has to offer. But remember, you've got to take care of yourself and the people you're with."