Are We Too Worried About Food Allergies?

In an effort to protect children with allergies, schools across the country are banning nut products and establishing "nut free zones." But the precautions are turning into a form of a social hysteria?

Physician, social scientist, and Harvard professor Dr. Nicholas Christakis believes the fear of allergies has gotten out of hand, according to a new piece in Time. Christakis wrote a commentary on the problem in the British Medical Journal after a bus in his child's school district was completely evacuated after a single peanut was found on the bus floor.

Christakis argues that our fear of nut allergies is disproportionate to the actual problem. Roughly 3.3. million Americans have nut allergies and only 150 die of allergy-related causes every year, numbers on par with the 100 Americans who are killed by lightening every year. For comparison, 45,000 die in car crashes and 1,300 are killed in gun accidents.

Between 1997 and 2007 the number of children with food allergies increased 17 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control, but many doctors are questioning whether the numbers are rising because more patients are getting tested for allergies that otherwise would go undetected, or if our overly hygienic lifestyle is actually increasing the amount of allergies because the body can't build up its immunity. "There are kids with severe allergies and they need to be taken seriously," Christakis says, "but the problem with a disproportionate response is that it feeds the epidemic."

Christakis cited an article that compared Jewish children living in the U.K. and Israel and found that among Israeli children who were exposed to peanuts since infancy, only 0.17% developed a nut allergy, but in the U.K. where children rarely encountered peanuts, 2% developed an allergy. But, another study out this morning recommends that pregnant women avoid exposing themselves to nuts, peanuts, and shellfish during pregnancy to reduce the risk of their child developing a food allergy. But how much does the daily obsessing over what pregnant women eat or whether children are exposed to the occasional peanut actually help? "The reality is that the vast majority of kids — 95% plus — have no potential to get peanut allergies no matter what you do," says Dr. Robert Wood, chief of the Pediatric Allergy and Immunology department at Johns Hopkins Children's Center, "and there's one-half to 1% who are going to get it no matter what you do."

Have Americans Gone Nuts Over Nut Allergies? [Time]
Prenatal Nutrition, Postnatal Allergy Protection [Washington Post]