The maker of an extremely spicy tortilla chip said Thursday it is working to remove the product from stores as Massachusetts authorities investigate the death of a teen whose family pointed to the One Chip Challenge popularized as a dare on social media as a contributing factor.
The cause of Harris Wolobah’s death on Sept. 1 has yet to be determined and an autopsy is pending, but the 14-year-old’s family blamed the challenge.
Since his death, Texas-based manufacturer Paqui has asked retailers to stop selling the individually wrapped chips, a step 7-Eleven has already taken.
The One Chip Challenge chip sells for about $10 US 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, from Worcester in central Massachusetts.
“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.”
High concentration of capsaicin could be fatal: doctor
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, nightshades 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.”
Scores of people, including children, have posted videos of themselves on TikTok or other social media sites unwrapping the packaging, eating the spicy chips and then reacting to the heat. Some videos show people gagging, coughing and begging for water.
Dr. Peter Chai, an associate professor of emergency medicine and medical toxicology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, said the chips could 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.”
Dr. Lauren Rice, the chief of pediatric emergency medicine at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, said the tragedy is an opportunity for parents, coaches, teachers to learn about the various social media challenges out there that could pose dangers.
“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,” said Rice. “Some of the more severe symptoms that we see can be things like significant abdominal pain or nausea and vomiting.”
Police in Worcester, the state’s second-largest city, said in a statement that they were called to Wolobah’s house on the afternoon of Aug. 31 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.
“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 Hill, who organized a basketball event to honour the teen.
A vigil for the teen is planned for Friday evening at a park in Worcester.