Life-Threatening Allergies Spur Peanut Bans at Mass. Schools
New bans and regulations restricting peanuts at some Massachusetts schools this fall have left some children raised on PB & J with nothing left but the J.
At Bradstreet School in North Andover, Mass., five kindergarten students found to have life-threatening peanut allergies have been assigned to a peanut-free class.
"It's a serious issue, and we're treating it seriously with very, very detailed plans," said George I. Blaisdell, the superintendent of the 4,000-student North Andover district.
Parents of students in the special class have been discouraged from sending their children to school with snacks from home, because many cookies and candies contain oils or other peanut-related substances that could harm allergic students.
A handful of schools in the state have adopted similar policies this year in efforts to protect students who have potentially fatal peanut allergies.
Nationwide, the number of reports of peanut-allergic children has increased in recent years, experts say. They note, however, that the reasons for the apparent rise are unclear, and many agree that attempts to ban peanuts from schools may not be the best solution.
Nevertheless, they say, the peanut issue has brought needed attention to the problem of food allergies in young children.
"I think the peanut has brought to the foreground another special health-care need," Anne Sheetz, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, said. "It makes interesting headlines, but there are a lot of kids with allergies out there."
About 5 percent of children under age 7 are allergic to some type of food, said Anne Munoz-Furlong, the founder of the Food Allergy Network, a Fairfax, Va.-based nonprofit organization. About 90 percent of these allergies are caused by at least one of six foods: milk, eggs, soy, wheat, peanuts, and tree nuts.
"Children tend to outgrow all of them except allergies to peanuts and tree nuts. Those are considered lifelong allergies," Ms. Munoz-Furlong said.
Allergic reactions to peanuts vary from child to child, but often begin with an itchy sensation in the mouth that leads to a swollen throat, said Dr. Hugh A. Sampson of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, who has studied allergies in children. That can lead to hives or a skin rash, followed by abdominal cramping and possibly vomiting, he said.
If undetected or untreated in time, a severe reaction can lead to what is called anaphylactic shock and even death.
Like other experts, Dr. Sampson believes there is an increase in the number of children with peanut allergies. In a group of children he tested in 1994, he found that twice as many had some sensitivity to peanuts as in a comparable group he studied 10 years earlier.
The results don't necessarily mean that the proportion of peanut-allergic children has doubled, he said, but they are "an indication that the peanut allergy is increasing."
Checking the Soap
Though the reasons for such an increase are unknown, experts cite several possible causes.
Children today may be introduced to peanuts at a younger age, when their immune systems are not yet sensitized for the protein.
Nursing mothers may pass the peanut protein to infant children, Ms. Munoz-Furlong said. And a changing American diet that includes more peanuts in foods like cereals and trail mixes may also have spurred the increase.
She added, though, that some or all of the increase may simply stem from heightened awareness or improved methods of detection.
At North Andover's Bradstreet School, staff members have reviewed every product in the building, making sure that even the hand soap doesn't contain dangerous peanut oils. And the school nurse and teachers have been trained to administer epinephrine shots to counter allergic reactions.
In the classroom for the allergic kindergartners, treats are bought in bulk at the start of each month. Their ingredients are closely monitored, and the snacks are placed in a trunk in the room.
"It's like a treasure chest," said Trisha Warringer, whose daughter is one of the peanut-allergic children. "The children can go and pick from it every day, and it's the biggest treat. They get so excited."
Bradstreet, however, didn't go so far as to ban peanuts throughout the school. "Some parents thought it violated their rights, and their kids' rights," Superintendent Blaisdell said. "They said, 'Wait a minute, that's all my kids eat.'"
Ms. Warringer said she and other parents of allergic children prefer it that way. "Peanut-free is not always safe," she said. "People think they're safe, and that's when you let your guard down."
Ms. Munoz-Furlong agreed: "Peanut bans do not work."
Awareness, Not Bans
Despite the reported increase in allergies, an informal survey of health officials in school districts around the country found that few have seen the need to take such drastic steps.
"There have been a few isolated cases [of peanut allergies], but we haven't seen any additional problems," said Dorothy Dubia, the communications director for the 47,000-student Seattle district.
On a policymaking level, many experts see bans simply as unrealistic and impractical. Students are allergic to so many things, they note, that it would be difficult if not impossible to ban them all.
"As much as we'd like to, we can't protect children from every possible adversity," said Tim Laatsch, the executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School Administrators.
Instead of bans, therefore, Ms. Munoz-Furlong and other health experts argue for increased education and awareness, especially in the classroom.
Students, parents, and teachers should learn to identify problem substances on product labels, they say. And educators must be made aware of the warning signs of oncoming reactions, and how to care for a student who goes into shock from a severe reaction.
To provide school administrators and staff members with such information, the Food Allergy Network has developed "The School Food Allergy Program," which includes a 20-minute video and information about allergies and symptoms of reactions. The program is available free to schools under a grant from the National Peanut Council.
Experts also emphasize the importance of cooperation between school officials and parents, who are often experts on their children's allergies. By working with parents, educators can avoid schoolwide bans by trying to meet the needs of individual students, Mr. Laatsch said.
So far, cooperation and education have been successful at Bradstreet School, said Principal Kathleen Callagy. "It's made us aware of how we can educate each other," she said. "It has strengthened a team effort."
More information is available from the Food Allergy Network, 10400 Eaton Place, Suite 107, Fairfax, Va. 22030-2208; (800) 929-4040. Or visit their Web site at http://www.foodallergy.org/products-schooltravel.html.