'Foam parties' bubble over with hidden hazards

It's all fun and games until someone gets hurt: Foam parties, like this one at a club in Ibiza, have spread from Europe to America, and ER doctors have noticed the trend.
It's all fun and games until someone gets hurt: Foam parties, like this one at a club in Ibiza, have spread from Europe to America, and ER doctors have noticed the trend.Luis Davilla/Getty Images / Today

Take a party full of young people drinking and dancing, and add bubbles. Lots of bubbles. What could go wrong at such a "foam party," where the bubbles are sometimes frothed several feet high?

Several things, it turns out. As machines spray foamy bubbles onto partygoers, revelers who get a face full of soapy bubbles can suffer from stinging, burning red eyes, not to mention the falls that can happen when the floor gets slick and people can’t see where they’re going because they’re dancing through a foamy cloud.

About 40 people sought emergency room treatment for eye injuries after a foam party on May 25 at a Naples, Fla., nightclub, said Deb Millsap, a spokeswoman for the Collier County Health Department.

In interviews with the Naples Daily News, clubgoers described intense eye pain and temporary blindness.

"I felt like I had shards of glass in my eyes," 22-year-old Lauren Martin told the newspaper. "I have never felt so much pain in my life. … My mom had to feed me. I could not open my eyes until Monday afternoon.”

One emergency room doctor who’s seen the trend grow in popularity says the parties are potentially dangerous.

“I question any party where you’re intentionally going to put together alcohol, slippery surfaces and blinding people to their visual surroundings,” says Dr. Howard Mell, a spokesman for the American College of Emergency Physicians. “Are they going to put people at risk of injury? Yeah.”

Officials don’t know what went wrong at the Naples club, but Millsap said it’s possible that the concentrated soap was not diluted correctly. “If you don’t dilute it correctly, it can become an irritant to the skin and eyes,” she said.

While the Memorial Day weekend party at Loft 59 was the first time that Naples officials encountered injuries from a foam party, Mell said that while working in two college towns within the last five years he encountered about one or two foam-related injuries a month.

“It wasn’t uncommon,” says Mell, now the emergency department director at TriPoint Medical Center, located in a bedroom community outside Cleveland where he has not seen a single foam-party patient.

When you’re wading through the bubbly parties, a chemical in the soap can irritate the eyes, he said, just like chlorine from a swimming pool or the sting of bubble bath getting in your eyes. “The stuff is bubble bath on a grand scale,” he said.

But more common than eye injuries, he said, are falls that happen because people can’t see what’s on the foam-covered floor beneath them. “One I can remember was a person who fell down and someone fell over them and broke their wrist,” Mell said.

The foam can also bring on nausea and vomiting if too much is inhaled or swallowed, Mell said. And if someone throws up, “that can create another slippery spot on the floor,” he noted.

If you haven’t heard of the foam party fad, you’re not alone. At first, Collier County officials thought the club injuries were related to “a thicker foam, like padding,” Millsap said. “For most of us, foam parties were new,” she said.

Mell learned of them through work over the last decade or so as they grew more popular.

“I had never heard of them 15 years ago when I was at the stage,” said Mell, who graduated from college in 1999. “Now it doesn’t even catch our attention in the ER as an unusual presentation if you work on a college campus.”

One famous face who apparently encountered the frothing of the foam is actress Anne Hathaway, 29. She mentioned to The New York Times that she attended such a party in college and said half of the party guests had pink eye the next morning.

“At the end of the day,” says Mell, “it’s not the smartest way to spend a Saturday night. It doesn’t take a whole lot of common sense to figure that out.”

Lisa A. Flam is a news and lifestyles reporter in New York.

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