The Cleanest Playground

By Kevin Tankersley

Baylor professor helps create a space for immunocompromised children

When 3-year-old Lily Taylor of Tempe, Arizona, was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in 2017, one of the things she missed most was being able to play on the playground near her house due to the weakening of her immune system. That inspired her dad, Brad Taylor, to create Lily’s Pad, which will eventually be a safe indoor play space for immunocompromised children. Debra Harris, an associate professor of interior design in Family and Consumer Sciences at Baylor, was asked to assist with the one-of-a-kind project. She and a couple of her undergraduate students conducted research to determine what kind of material should be used in the construction of the play structure. Harris is also conducting research on Decon7 — a decontaminant designed for industrial use — and its ability to disinfect common indoor surfaces. (Spoiler alert: It works better than bleach.)

WACOAN: How did you get involved with Lily’s Pad in Tempe?

Harris: Several years ago I was asked by the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] to test a disinfectant decontaminant product. [It’s] been used in the military and by the FBI, but they wouldn’t release any of their data, so [the CDC] needed independent testing of this product. It’s called Decon7. It’s [made by] a company that was located in Scottsdale, Arizona, and recently moved to [Coppell], Texas. So I’ve been testing it in the lab, and we’ve been doing some on-site data collection and some lab tests on it.

I got a call one day, and they said, ‘Hey, we’re going to put you in contact with the owners of Lily’s Pad. We think that you might be useful to them. It’s right up your alley.’

I got in contact with the guys who started Lily’s Pad. Lily [Taylor] is the girl who had cancer. I started working with them while she was still in treatment. She went into remission and got to ring the bell while I was working with them. It was all very exciting.

They had a real hard time. These little kids, they don’t understand that they can’t go play where they used to play. They couldn’t find anywhere for her to be able to do that or socialize with anybody else. We were talking about this thing, but it was just kind of an idea.

They formed a nonprofit. I’m on the board of directors. I didn’t help them design it; they had an architect who designed it. I helped them with specifying the interior materials used and the protocols for disinfecting.

My background is in health care architecture, and my area of research is around indoor environmental health. Health of people, that sort of thing. I got on board with [Lily’s Pad]. They asked me if I would help them do this.

We started working on a materials palette. I ended up having two Baylor undergraduate students work with me for independent credit, so they were involved in that. We hosted [Michelle and Al Taylor, Lily’s grandparents,] at Baylor so they could see all the resources that we had and spend a day with them here. [Editor’s note: Al Taylor is the CEO of Lily’s Pad.]

I was supposed to go there. The lease space was donated for 13 years, and we were going to have this ceremony so that Lily could cut the tape and have all this fanfare, even though we didn’t have a build-out yet. And then COVID happened, so I haven’t been able to go up there since a year or so ago.

It’s very interesting. It’s the first of its kind. It’s a play space for immunocompromised children, all kinds, whether it’s cancer or some other immunodeficiency issue. The idea is they walk in, [Lily’s Pad will] have socks for them to put on and cubbies for shoes. They can get into the play zone, and they have a certain amount of hours, I think it’s a two-hour thing that they can be there. The playscape will be monitored by students in a nursing program at Arizona College of Nursing.

We are looking at specifying materials that are easily disinfected and playscape equipment that’s easily disinfected. And we’re using Decon7 for the disinfection agent. They’ll do sprays and wipedowns in between play sessions and do air misting at the end of the day. We just hammered out all those protocols, and we’re still working on some of the materials. Some of the materials are harder to meet the criteria.

Right now we’re dealing with flooring. We want the flooring to have the cushioning that has to pass a test, so if the kid falls off from 5 feet above on a playscape and they land, they’re not going to break something. There are certain standards that you have to meet for that.

So far, our challenge has been the flooring, because the solutions we’ve found are incredibly expensive. And the choices are limited because of this fall rating that we want to have. We think we find a solution and then it slips away.

WACOAN: What would be the difference in this flooring and the flooring in a traditional indoor playscape?

Harris: What they’re trying to do is create an indoor playscape that’s like an outdoor playscape. Most indoor play areas have things that are 3 feet or lower to the ground, so they don’t need the same kind of flooring. They have more choices to pick from. For us, we’re trying to find that sweet spot so that they can get the playscape that they want for active kids but meet that fall standard.

WACOAN: So on an outdoor playscape, if a kid falls from 5 feet, there’s grass or mulch underneath, and those materials wouldn’t be feasible for an indoor playscape. Is that right?

Harris: And a concrete subfloor is a lot harder than dirt outside. Whatever the fall rating is for an outdoor playscape, they might not have to meet the same criteria since they’re not starting with a concrete foundation.

WACOAN: You said the material on the playscape is different than a traditional playscape. Is that right?

Harris: The problem is that these kinds of places are generally not hygienic enough for doctors to sign a prescription that says you can go to this playscape area and play. We’re working with medical practitioners and other people across different agencies to get their support for this.

Lily’s dad tells a really heart-wrenching story of her crying because they’re driving past their old playground and he can’t stop and let her out because the risk would be too high. So the idea is all of these [immunocompromised] kids are at risk, and [Lily’s Pad is] taking more extraordinary steps to keep it hygienic so that it’s a safe place for them to come.

The other part of the facility, which I think is just as important, is they’re going to provide space for respite for the parents. If the parents just need to have a break, 20 minutes in a sensory room, that’s kind of what we have planned for that. If they need an office to make phone calls for insurance or medical appointments or to place a grocery order, whatever it is, there are rooms for that. It’ll have a cafe and some other things for nourishment. The kids will be overseen, while they’re playing, by nursing students; then that frees up the parents to be able to have a timeout of their own or take care of some business things that they can’t do as easily when they have their kids with them.

WACOAN: The playscape hasn’t been built yet, has it?

Harris: They’re currently running programs to get the funding available. The big expensive part is the HVAC system. The flooring is not as expensive as the HVAC system, but it’s another big-ticket item. We’re trying to find someone who will help us out with that.

We basically want the hygiene that you would find in a doctor’s office, not necessarily a hospital but a doctor’s office. We’ll have higher air changes and HEPA filters and other things that make it pretty expensive but will help to clean the air so that the disinfectants used have to work a little less.

WACOAN: Is there a time frame for when it will be done, or a time frame for when you would like it to be done?

Harris: We have the money to do the demolition and prepare the facility that’s been donated. The donated facility is rent-free. There’s a contract awarding it to this nonprofit for 13 years. We have the plans for demolition that need to be addressed, to meet codes and prepare for the build-out. And we’re going to go ahead and spend that money and get the place demolished ready, while they’re searching for additional funding.

It’s an ongoing process, and they’re working at it. As soon as they get the go-ahead and they have the funds, they’re doing the next part of it, so that they’re not waiting to just start right from scratch.

WACOAN: Your bachelor’s was in interior design and human ecology. How did you figure out the connection between interior design and what you’re doing now?

Harris: Sometimes you pick your specialty, and sometimes your specialty picks you. [After college] I ended up working for an architecture engineering firm that did a lot of military projects. Some of my first projects were hospital projects, and I just loved it. I loved the complexity of it. I loved the fact that I can design things that can contribute to a good experience or a healthier experience, rather than impeding those things.

I ended up going and getting my master’s degree at the University of Oregon and really got to explore those areas. I got very involved in sustainability. I got very interested in indoor air quality. My capstone project was a hospital in eastern Oregon, and by the time I finished my master’s degree, I knew I wanted to get a Ph.D. I ended up at Texas A&M, and I was able to pursue my interests there.

When I got out, I practiced some and I was in academia some, but I really homed in on human health, from an evidence standpoint. My projects are all evidence-based. I’m going to find the research and evidence that either supports or negates a decision-making process and communicate that with my clients or the people I’m working with and make those decisions in an informed way.

Now, at Baylor, I have a lab. It’s an environmental forensics laboratory. I do a lot of projects having to do with health and safety related to firefighters and trying to reduce cancer rates, based on their exposure to contaminants during a fire or during medical calls. And I’m working on Lily’s Pad. I’ve also done other projects looking at biological and chemical contaminants on surfaces in the indoor environment and how that contributes to help transmission of those pathogens and health of the people that are occupying those environments.

WACOAN: Where were you in practice?

Harris: I practiced at Davis Partnership [Architects] in Colorado. I was an independent consultant before that and after that. I’ve worked in different firms over the long haul. I had my own firm in Austin for a number of years. And when I decided to join Baylor, I transitioned that practice into just research-focused over time. I’m not staffing an office for my consulting firm, but I still consult for certain projects. The project I’m doing for Lily’s Pad, I’m doing that as a pro bono exercise and fulfilling Baylor’s mission, and just for fun, I guess.

WACOAN: It might be fun for you, but then it has potentially life-changing capabilities for these children.

Harris: And their parents. I mean, can you imagine, even if people take their kids to a playground, they can’t just hand them off to a nurse and spend 30 minutes getting their sanity back in a sensory room. They’re still worried about their kids on the playground. So we’re trying to take care of the kids, and we’re also trying to give a little bit of break for the parents too.

WACOAN: I would think that a break would be even more important for parents of children who are facing medical issues that would require a visit to Lily’s Pad, since those kids often require round-the-clock care.

Harris: Exactly. That’s a huge gift. [Lily’s parents] lived that, so they know the ins and outs of the issues for parents dealing with the medical side, dealing with the insurance side, figuring out how to keep your kid happy in a very strange and stressful time.

WACOAN: With the type of research that you just described, are you doing anything related to COVID right now?

Harris: Yeah. I collaborated with a couple of virologists. We did a study recently, and it’s been accepted for publication, I just haven’t gotten the notice that it’s out yet.

We tested 16 common indoor finished materials. We had two virology labs working, one of them inoculated two human coronaviruses that are not COVID-19. Then the BSL-3 [biosafety level 3] lab in Houston did the same study with the SARS-CoV-2 — the COVID virus — there, and it was super interesting. We were able to statistically show that materials do, in fact, have an influence on how long the virus lives on those materials. They’re not all the same.

And then we did a companion study and tested Decon7 against bleach, which is a common disinfectant used in hospitals and homes everywhere. And when we did this study, a lot of disinfectants, if they’re EPA-registered, they have a 10-minute dwell time, or contact time where you have to keep the surface wet with that disinfectant for 10 minutes, and then they test it. Most people don’t clean that way. So we decided to test it for one minute. And if it didn’t work out, we would back it out to three minutes and regroup and try again.

So we did it at one minute and Decon7 was very effective, whereas the bleach did not activate as much within that time frame. It’s really interesting work because it’s got both of those sides to it. But these were just the first studies of this kind, and clearly, there’s more work to be done. Everything that we’ve done so far, with testing Decon7, it’s been very effective both on chemical contaminants on firefighter gear, and biological contaminants, three coronaviruses and a whole host of other pathogens. MRSA is one of them. It’s been very effective.

WACOAN: Is Decon7 available to the public?

Harris: No. It’s a [business-to-business] product. It’s being used a lot in the food industry and in bio and chemical warfare products. It’s a three-part product that has to be mixed. And so they have not put it on the retail market, but they sell it for businesses. Maintenance companies have it for their facilities and things like that. So I’ve been doing that alongside the other research that I do.

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