Guest blogger Ronda Kaysen: Food allergies are on the rise. Exposure to even a trace amount of allergenic foods like peanuts can cause sudden death in an allergic child. We scour packaging labels to be certain our kids' food is free of these dangerous ingredients. But what if we're wrong? What if the spike in allergies is nothing more than a craze built on bad science and panic?
Grandparents roll their eyes when we lock the peanut butter jar away with the cleaning supplies. They talk longingly of the days when P.B. & J sandwiches were staples in every kid's lunch pail and not banned from school property. They might be onto something.
The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network, a Virginia-based advocacy organization, has led the charge to raise awareness about allergies. It insists that incidence of food allergies has doubled in the last decade, food allergies are responsible for 50,000 emergency room visits in the U.S. a year and 150 people die a year from food allergies. Their efforts have led politicians to enact laws, school boards to change their policies and parents to go into a tailspin.
But their science is off the mark, says Parikh. He disputes their claims, saying the methodology is faulty and that a lot of parents who think their kids have allergies are just plain wrong.
The evidence that 50,000 people ended up in the E.R. because of food allergies is based on one hospital's data over a period of several years. The claim that allergy rates have doubled is based on phone surveys, which are notoriously inaccurate. Parikh says the claim that 150 to 200 kids die a year from allergies is "grossly exaggerated." In 2004, the Centers for Disease Control cited only 14 cases of death from anaphylaxis, the condition that occurs when a person suddenly stops breathing.
The hype - kids wear bracelets and carry medicine with them at all times, school buses are evacuated when a stray peanut is found - has totally blown the risk out of proportion. Even if 150 people died from food allergies last year, it doesn't hold a candle to the 1,300 who died from gun accidents or the 2,000 kids who drown each year. "More children assuredly die walking or being driven to school each year than die from nut allergies," Harvard physician and sociologist Nicholas Christakis wrote in an essay that Parikh quoted.
All this talk makes me wonder if we should listen to Grandma after all. Maybe our toddlers would be better off with a bowl of mussels in peanut sauce with strawberries for dessert.
|Ronda Kaysen is a freelance writer. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, BusinessWeek.com, Architectural Record, Huffington Post, New York Observer and AM New York. She lives in Brooklyn with her family.|