Teen's death investigated as company pulls spicy chip challenge from stores
The cause of death has yet to be determined, but the 14-year-old's family pointed to the Paqui One Chip Challenge popularized as a dare on social media as a contributing factor.
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.
A vigil for the teen is planned for Friday evening at a park in Worcester in central Massachusetts.
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 have responded 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.”
There have been reports from around the country of people who have gotten 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.
“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.”