Harris Wolobah, a healthy 14-year-old from Worcester, Massachusetts, tragically died last Friday, hours after eating a single ultra-spicy tortilla chip seasoned with two of the hottest peppers in the world.
The teen’s mother, Lois Wolobah, reportedly picked up her son from school that day after getting a call from the nurse that he was sick. She arrived to see him clutching his stomach and took him home. About two hours later, he lost consciousness and was rushed to the hospital, where he died.
The teen had told his mother that he had eaten a Paqui chip—The 2023 Paqui One Chip Challenge chip, to be exact. Each chip is sold individually, wrapped in a foil pouch and packaged in a coffin-shaped box adorned with a skull, snakes, and a Grim Reaper. The box contains the challenge rules, which dare consumers to eat the whole chip and “wait as long as possible before drinking or eating anything”—and, of course, post reactions on social media.
Lois Wolobah believes the chip played a role in the death of her son, who had no known underlying medical conditions.
“I just want there to be an awareness for parents to know that it’s not safe,” Wolobah told The New York Times in an article that published Wednesday. “It needs to be out of the market completely.”
On Thursday, the maker of the Paqui chip—Amplify Snack Brands, a subsidiary of the Hershey Company—announced that they were taking the potentially deadly chip off shelves.
The chip was intended only for adults and carried clear warnings, the company said in a statement. It was not intended for “children or anyone sensitive to spicy foods or who has food allergies, is pregnant or has underlying health conditions.
“We have seen an increase in teens and other individuals not heeding these warnings,” the statement went on. “As a result, while the product continues to adhere to food safety standards, out of an abundance of caution, we are actively working with our retailers to remove the product from shelves.”
Harris Wolobah’s cause of death is not yet determined; it’s not certain if the chip is to blame. An autopsy will be conducted, but the results could take up to 12 weeks, according to the Massachusetts Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.
Some have decried yet another social media challenge endangering youth. But, the teen’s death also spotlights a sparse but concerning crop of medical reports that suggest that the pursuit of ever-spicier hot peppers is getting more dangerous, potentially nearing a lethal limit.
The Paqui chip was seasoned with the Carolina Reaper pepper, the current hottest pepper in the world, and the Naga Viper pepper, which was the reigning hottest pepper in 2011 but is now merely among the top 10.
If you haven’t kept track, heat-seeking chili growers have been breeding spicier and spicier hybrids. In 2007, the Ghost Pepper was the hottest, but in 2011, it was overthrown by a succession of new hybrids, including the Infinity Chili, the Naga Viper pepper, and the Trinidad Scorpion Butch T pepper. Then, in 2013, the Carolina Reaper came along and has yet to be unseated—which may be for the best.