TOPICS > Health

Peanut Allergies

December 19, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT

CAMILLE HAYWARD, Teacher: (talking to children) Okay. Boys and girls, if you have peanut butter in your lunch, would you raise your hands–or any kind of peanut product. Jesse, what do you have?

LEE HOCHBERG: It’s a daily ritual at the Valley School in Seattle. Teacher Camille Hayward searches the lunches of the four-year-olds in her class for peanut butter.

CAMILLE HAYWARD: And any peanut butter in between? Okay. You’ve got a peanut butter candy, and that has peanut butter in it.

LEE HOCHBERG: Two children in the class of eleven are allergic to peanuts. They could suffer life-threatening reactions if they eat peanuts or foods made form peanuts. They’re so sensitive they could react even if another toddler with peanut butter on his hands accidentally touches them.

CAMILLE HAYWARD: It is a real issue, and, again, a child could die while eating lunch. Another child could run across the room and toss a peanut butter sandwich or forget that they have peanut butter on a napkin, and a child could die of it.

LEE HOCHBERG: It’s hard to imagine the peanut butter sandwich, a staple of childhood, being a health hazard, but doctors say the number of children with severe peanut allergies has grown dramatically in the U.S., tenfold in a generation. It’s the most common food allergy, and there’s no cure and no means of prevention. Allergists meeting recently in San Diego said two and a half million Americans now are peanut allergic, and perhaps 5 percent of all children under age 6. Several hundred thousand are at risk for life-threatening reactions.

DR. HUGH SAMPSON, Pediatric Allergist: They develop tightening in the throat, difficulty breathing, severe difficulty breathing, wheezing, requiring emergency medications in order to save their lives.

LEE HOCHBERG: Dr. Hugh Sampson of the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine estimates peanut products cause 40 deaths a year in the U.S.. Doctors aren’t sure why the allergy is on the increase, but they suspect children are being exposed to peanut too early. A child’s immune system can’t tolerate peanut proteins until age three, but a study of infants in San Diego found 80 percent had been fed peanut by age two. And mothers eating peanut butter while pregnant or while breast feeding could be passing on peanut proteins to their young even earlier. Whatever the cause, the allergies are prompting clashes between parents, educators, and political leaders over how far to go to protect allergic children. For example, some schools have banned peanut butter, a decision met with vigorous criticism, as in this radio commentary by Rush Limbaugh.

RUSH LIMBAUGH: But isn’t this a typical liberal solution? You’ve got 440 students and 1 of them has a peanut allergy. What do you do? You ban peanut butter from all 440 of the children, spread the misery around, deny everybody the right to eat peanut butter in order to protect the 1 child who cannot.

LEE HOCHBERG: Some parents are angered by accommodations made for other allergies. When a preschool in Virginia banned milk, cheese, and yogurt to protect a student with an allergy to dairy products, some parents pulled children from the school and withheld tuition. Critics also have lashed out at a recent ruling from the U.S. Justice Department that obligates school teachers to treat allergic reactions. Peanut-allergic children could need a life-saving shot of adrenaline but La Petite Academy, the nation’s second largest child care provider, said it would not take on the liability of administering it. Parents of allergic kids said the school was violating the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires schools make reasonable accommodations to people with disabilities. In an October settlement with the government the Academy agreed to administer adrenaline. Like many schools, St. Ann’s Episcopal in Denver, has begun adapting to its peanut-allergic children, like nine-year-old Caroline Curtiss. Though Curtiss brings her own peanut-free lunch, the school stopped using peanut oil in its cafeteria food to reduce her risk of reaction.

DOCTOR: Do we have some of these to hand out. This has one dose of epinephrine or adrenaline to administer to a patient.

LEE HOCHBERG: And the school brought in a doctor to teach faculty how to give the adrenaline injection children like Curtiss might need.

DOCTOR: What I usually do is grab it like this. You do not want to put your thumb on either side because there is a needle here and there occasionally have been cases where people have injected their thumb. What you want to do is press, hear a click, and hold it for 10 seconds. You have to use some pressure to administer the medication, and you have to hold them so that they don’t move around.


LEE HOCHBERG: Though most teachers at this training session seemed to embrace their new duty, one wondered why she was suddenly being asked to practice medicine.

TEACHER: To stick that in somebody’s leg does not make me feel comfortable, I find that–just–I mean, that’s one of the reasons I’m not in the medical field. On a personal level it just scares me to death.

LEE HOCHBERG: School headmaster Ramsay Stabler says allergic students can be assigned to rooms with more willing teachers. He says there’s probably a limit to what he can ask teachers to do but using the Epi-Pen injector is no big deal.

RAMSAY STABLER, Headmaster: I think anything that deals with open wounds and blood is something that we’re going to bring in the professionals, because this Epi-Pen is so well designed and so easy to use, there’s very little risk for doing the wrong thing. And I think that’s where our comfort level is.

LEE HOCHBERG: Just the same, Stabler knows there could be lawsuits if a treatment somehow goes wrong. As schools nationwide consider how to accommodate allergic children, political leaders, like Peggy Johnson, are concerned.

PEGGY JOHNSON, State Representative, (R): I think that it’s going on beyond what would be expected of any teacher. A teacher is trained to teach. They expect to walk in the classroom and teach. They do not expect to be technicians, medical technicians, or health care providers.

LEE HOCHBERG: The chairwoman of Washington State’s House Education Committee, Johnson says teachers already have enough to do as educators without becoming, as she puts it, social workers.

PEGGY JOHNSON: To assume the responsibility for the total well-being of the child in the classroom, I don’t think so.

LEE HOCHBERG: That argument is chilling to Ann Munoz Furlong, the director of the Food Allergy Network. The group lobbies on behalf of 15,000 people with food allergies, offering an information packet to help schools accommodate allergic kids.

ANN MUNOZ FURLONG, Food Allergy Network: This is a medication that will save someone’s life. It’s the only medication that will turn around an allergic reaction. How can we honestly sit there and say, I don’t know if I want to do that?

LEE HOCHBERG: The allergy debate goes beyond schools. Some parents are sparring with airlines, trying to get peanut snacks removed from planes. Peanut-allergic children like Caroline Curtiss have suffered serious reactions in mid-air without having eaten or even touched a peanut themselves.

CAROLINE CURTISS: Well, it was extremely scary. I felt like I was just going to pass out.

LEE HOCHBERG: Caroline’s United Airlines flight was forced to land early so she could be whisked to an emergency room. The release of peanut dust into the cabin from several hundred open peanut bags apparently set off her reaction. A Mayo Clinic study suggests the situation was not unusual. Researchers found quantities of peanut allergens in the ventilation systems of several commercial airplanes. Some airlines, like Northwest and Southwest, say they’ll pull peanuts in flights with allergic passengers, but Caroline’s parents say when they asked United to do that on a subsequent flight, the airline said no.

DAVIE CURTISS: There were a range of answers. There was, maybe you should fly another airline. In one case, someone said, I find that to be a very selfish request.

LEE HOCHBERG: United says evidence linking peanut dust in the cabin with allergic reactions is anecdotal, not scientific. The airline refused to be interviewed on camera but in a written statement said it is impractical, if not impossible, to alter the food we serve on a flight by flight or passenger by passenger basis. The Food Allergy Network’s Ann Munoz Furlong believes the government should use the Americans With Disabilities Act to force airlines to accommodate food-allergic passengers.

ANN MUNOZ FURLONG: We’re only asking make the airs safe for us, just as they are for other people. I think that’s reasonable.

PEGGY JOHNSON: That is beyond reasonableness. We have somehow come to the point in America where government has got to take care of everybody, every problem. We run to government, and they handle it for us. And I don’t believe that’s the way America was founded. I don’t think it’s the way we’re going to be a strong nation, is if we continually work to government to solve our problems.

LEE HOCHBERG: With food allergies of all kinds on the increase and no medical solutions in sight, allergy sufferers can only hope a social solution emerges to offer them relief.