"Will That Kill My Kid?" Moldy Sophie Edition

In 2017, countless sophies were murdered in the name of child safety. |  zipbamboo  for  pixabay

In 2017, countless sophies were murdered in the name of child safety. | zipbamboo for pixabay

Nearly every day I encounter a social media missive to "boost awareness" of a new or previously-unknown danger facing my kid. I should check fidget spinners for choking hazards. I should be on the lookout for human traffickers at IKEA. And I should mutilate a $23 giraffe to check for mold infestation.

Like mold on a bath toy you thought you'd cleaned properly, this story pops up every few months on social media. Good Housekeeping first ran the story in January 2017. Pediatric dentist Dana Chianese was cleaning her child's Sophie when she noticed a smell. She cut into the toy

The story spread like, well, mold. Sophies are full of black mold! Those toys that our beloved babies put in their MOUTHS!!!

I'm misrepresenting this coverage a little bit. The posts circulating on facebook earlier this year had more exclamation points. And scream emojis. 

Some writers did attempt to lower the panic level. The Today Show quoted a pediatric pulmonologist who suggested that the the mold was a result of parents too aggressively cleaning the toys. Mia Carella at Her View from Home posted images of  squeaky-clean Sophie innards and encouraged other parents not to waste their money by destroying their favorite baby toys. 

But most of the coverage went for the ick factor. Buzzfeed included a disgusting array of mold-covered giraffe carcasses. The comments section of that piece is a gold mine. Some complained that the company should not put a hole in the toy, because children would obviously drool on a teething toy. A few suggested that people just cover the hole with hot glue, prompting yet more readers to point out the choking hazards posed by detaching dried glue. More people expressed relief that their children had never taken to Sophie. Most took issue with the toy's price tag, and not-so-gently suggested that those willing to pay for it deserved to find mold inside.

It would be easy to leave the story here, with an adorable if perhaps overpriced toy causing panic in some parents and generating snark from many more. But I want to resurrect the killer Sophie story one more time to explore how these stories create needless panic. The point here is not to make you feel safer about Sophie (though if you have one, there's probably no need to behead it in the name of safety). Instead, it's to think about how we respond to the latest campaign to boost awareness. 

There are a few reasons to be suspicious of the mold story. I am not denying the presence of mold in some--or even a lot of--Sophies. I've thrown away my share of moldy rubber duckies and sippy cups. But the general narrative of the Sophie response ("babies drool, so OF COURSE toys with holes in them will get moldy!") doesn't quite fit.

Molds are fungi. So just like the mushrooms that sprout up in your backyard after a rainstorm, mold pops up in places with an abundance of moisture. It makes sense that parents see their children drooling all over toys and imagine that saliva is causing the mold. Many of the experts interviewed during the moldy Sophie crisis of 2017 suggested that saliva probably wasn't the culprit. First, even though some babies drool all the time, it would be difficult to get large quantities of saliva into a Sophie. Even if you injected saliva directly into Sophie (and I'm not willing to risk my own Sophie's good health for this experiment!), that saliva, which is weakly acidic, wouldn't be a very hospitable environment for mold. The much more likely case, the experts argued, was that the Sophies were being submerged in water during cleaning, leaving water behind that later allowed mold to grow. 

The cause of the mold probably doesn't matter to parents, who are more concerned with the existence of the mold. The "black mold" reported in all of these stories is terrifyingly non-specific. Many different types of mold are black, including Aspergillus niger (which you may know from commercially produced citric acid) and Aspergillus oryzae (which you know from soy sauce). We we use the term "black mold," we're likely conflating these relatively harmless kinds of molds with the scary ones from the genus Stachybotrys. But those molds are unlikely to grow in a Sophie and are, as it turns out, not actually toxic

In summary, we have a problem (moldy Sophies), probably caused by parents (improper cleaning), which probably isn't a problem because the mold isn't a serious health risk for otherwise healthy children. 

So why does this story keep resurfacing, creating needless panic and giraffe dissections in the name of safety?

First, I would argue that it's Sophie that makes this story so shareable. Buzzfeed commenters criticizing parents for shelling out so much money for a piece of rubber have failed to recognize what Sophie represents. Sophie smells good. Brand-new-baby good. I think it's that smell that makes Sophie such a popular baby shower gift. As many helpful internet commenters have pointed out, anything can be a teething toy if babies chew on it. But Sophie isn't just a teething toy. She's a symbol of the purity and innocence of new babies. I suspect that's one reason why the story of moldy Sophies is so upsetting to parents. 

Second, the story carries medical authority. It wasn't just a mom who discovered mold inside a beloved baby toy. It was a pediatric dentist. The original article demonstrated Chianese's own role in promoting teething toys: "As a pediatric dentist, Dana Chianese recommends teething toys to parents every single day, including Sophie the Giraffe (which her two boys under the age of three prefer), but not anymore."

Chianese's profession was appended to nearly every retelling of the moldy Sophie story, lending it implicit medical value. This is a medical professional telling parents to fear mold. We should fear mold!!! 

Combine an attack on childhood innocence, a medical authority figure, and fear of invisible dangers and BAM! Readers everywhere pulled out their kitchen shears. 

If you start looking for it, you'll see this pattern everywhere. That IKEA scare about human trafficking? Corrinne Barraclough at Kidspot describes that non-event-turned-national-news as kids + trusted brand + fear. The controversy over Gerber puffs? Same formula

This doesn't mean that there aren't real dangers or reasonable concerns to have about our children, or that we should passively accept information coming from trusted voices, be they people or brands. But it should encourage us to share with caution.