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Fatality Draws Scrutiny to Spicy ‘One Chip Challenge’ Product

One of the last things Harris Wolobah, 14, of Worcester, Mass., ate before he died was a single tortilla chip in a coffin-shaped box that bore an image of a skull with a snake coiled around it, his mother said.

Lois Wolobah said her son’s school called last Friday to tell her he was sick and that she needed to come and get him.

When she arrived, Harris was clutching his stomach in the nurse’s office, she said in an interview on Tuesday.

He showed her a picture of what he had just consumed: a single Paqui chip, dusted with two of the hottest peppers in the world, the Carolina Reaper and the Naga Viper. The label on the box said “One Chip Challenge” and carried a warning — “Inside: One Extremely Hot Chip.” Paqui tortilla chips are made by Amplify Snack Brands, a subsidiary of the Hershey Company.

Ms. Wolobah said she took her son home, but after about two hours he passed out and was rushed to a hospital, where he died. He had faced no underlying health conditions, she said.

The cause of death was not immediately clear; it will be up to 12 weeks before the results of an autopsy are available, Tim McGuirk, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, said.

But Ms. Wolobah said she believed the chip had jeopardized her son’s health.

“I just want there to be an awareness for parents to know that it’s not safe,” Ms. Wolobah said. “It needs to be out of the market completely.”

The Paqui “One Chip Challenge” has been criticized for making people sick in the past, but this is the first time someone has linked it to a fatality. After The Boston Globe reported on the teenager’s death, the story spread to other local and national outlets.

“We are deeply saddened by the news report and express our condolences to the family,” a Paqui spokeswoman, Kim Metcalfe, said in a statement. “It would be inappropriate for us to speculate or comment further.”

The Hershey Company bought Amplify, which is based in Austin, Texas, for $1.6 billion in 2017.

Until Tuesday, marketing materials for the Paqui One Chip Challenge, which sells for $9.99, dared customers to wait as long as possible after eating the chip before eating or drinking anything, and then to post their reactions on social media. “How long can you last before you spiral out?” the Paqui website asked. That language had been removed from the site by Wednesday.

Since this year’s chip was introduced last month, a new round of videos have circulated showing people begging for water, or shoveling ice cream into their mouths, after eating one.

The packaging carries a prominent warning that the chip should be kept out of the reach of children and is intended only for adult consumption. People who are pregnant or who have “any medical conditions” should not eat the chip, nor should those who are sensitive or allergic to spicy foods, peppers, night shade plants or capsaicin, the compound in chili peppers that is responsible for burning and irritation.

The package advises that anyone who experiences breathing trouble, fainting or extended nausea after eating the chip should seek medical attention.

Harris Wolobah is not the first child who has sought medical care after eating the chip. School officials in California and Texas told the “Today” show website last year that students had been taken to the hospital after eating one.

Also last year, about 30 public school students in Clovis, N.M., experienced health issues after eating the chip, KOB-TV of Albuquerque reported. As a preventive measure, the Huerfano School District in Colorado banned the chips, according to a post on its Facebook page.

In a 2020 study, researchers at the University of Mississippi Medical Center detailed the “serious complications” that can result from eating the Carolina Reaper pepper, noting that a 15-year-old boy had suffered an acute cerebellar stroke two days after eating one on a dare. The Carolina Reaper has been measured at more than two million Scoville heat units, the scale used to measure how hot peppers are. The Naga Viper has been measured at just under 1.4 million Scoville units. Jalapeño peppers are typically rated at between 2,000 and 8,000 units.

Harris Wolobah, 14, of Worcester, Mass., died at a hospital on Friday shortly after eating the chip, his mother said.Credit…via GoFundMe

But that has not stopped the curious.

Colin Mansfield of Beaumont, Calif., and his nephew Cole Roe, 15, ate the chip together over FaceTime and Mr. Mansfield shared the video on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. Mr. Mansfield, who makes his own hot sauce, said that it was like a “really spicy curry” and that the heat began to wear off after about 10 minutes. (His nephew, he said, needed a drink after 30 seconds.)

But that’s when another side effect kicked in for both of them: a crippling stomachache.

“I was on the floor, in a fetal position,” Mr. Mansfield said, adding that he wouldn’t have eaten the chip had he known that it would feel as if “somebody put you on the ground and kicked you in the stomach.”

Devin McClain and Jade Dian, who live in Houston, said they had also experienced stomach pains after recording themselves eating the chip — and then chasing it with water, milk and ice cream — for their YouTube channel.

“It was instant pain,” Ms. Dian said. “The milk was not helping, the ice cream was not helping.”

Mr. McClain said that even after the intensity of the heat had faded in his mouth, he could still feel it in his body.

“You could feel it spread; that’s the worst part, honestly,” he said.

Both suffered stomach pains into the next morning, they said. Would they try it again?

“Not in 2023,” Mr. McClain said. “Unless it was highly requested by viewers.”

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