Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Food Allergies

I was reading an online Slate article this morning, and it got me thinking. I've had a similar reaction to overcautious parents for quite some time now. Several years ago, while working in a coffee shop, the new "in" thing for parents with too much money to spend seemed to be reading all labels for any evidence of peanuts or treenuts. I guess we've gone farther, now hickory trees are apparently high enough risk for a kid with a nut allergy that a town sufficiently fears litigation to cut down several of them.

What has the world come to when a commentator has to ask:

Who is crazy here—the family that wants the trees felled or the residents who seem willing to put a child at risk? It's hard to tell. That's the dilemma of nut allergies. There are cases of real danger and real death. And then there's the huge circle of caution that often gets drawn around children when, rationally speaking, more modest precautions might do.
Sadly, that's the world we live in today -- a world where irrational parents can make normal life cease for fear of something that might happen to a child who has never evidenced risk before.

I understand food allergies -- I really do. My wife's best-friend is seriously allergic to peanuts, and moderately allergic to a host of other legumes. However, she's an adult, and has never evidenced airborne risk, so while she'd prefer you not eat a peanut-butter sandwich in front of her because she finds the smell unpleasant, she hasn't tried to ban all foods that might have made contact with peanuts from her worksite.

Some of you might be saying "so you know someone..." Well, I know several people, a shellfish (crustacea, not bivalves... yes, I know it's hard to imagine, but clams are not closely related to crabs) allergy in my family, a banana allergy in my wife's, a blueberry allergy in mine, and a serious cashew allergy in mine that leads to minor issues with other drupes (including mango and poison ivy).

The problem with too many parents is that they seem to assume, "my kid's friend is allergic to peanuts, so my kid must be allergic to peanuts too, and cashews because they look like peanuts, and probably all nuts -- we must make the world a NUT FREE ZONE!!!" Even without intensive allergy testing, parents should be able to do better -- when you find an allergy through contact, learn what's really closely related, and don't feed a kid with peanut allergies lentils without asking if it makes them itchy, but dry roasted almonds or chashews, not processed in a plant that processes peanuts, are probably alright. Better yet, make the kid go through the whole battery of tests, and then avoid what actually comes up -- not everything. Finally, try to find out how serious the allergy really is -- if it's airborne, freak out, you're one of the few with a hypersensitive case, otherwise, take reasonable and sensible precautions. If your child has a mild peanut allergy, don't quiz every potential playmate's parents to discover if there's peanut butter in the house and ban contact with all kids who might occasionally eat some, just inform your kid's friend's parents' and ask for reasonable support.

If more of us were treated as reasonable people, then perhaps we'll all be able to live in a more sane world again. If parents had done that while I worked at the cafe, I wouldn't have responded like I did a few times, telling one hypercautious mother who'd just told her friend that while her kid hadn't been tested "you can't be too cautious," not to bother with any of our food, because I couldn't give her a 100% guarantee of peanut/treenut-freeness about anything.

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