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My take on peanut bans

Recently peanut bans have come under fire, particularly by writer Patricia Pearson who in the October issue of Chatelaine wrote a provocative piece claiming peanut bans are nuts. She is the mother of a picky child, whose favourite food is peanut butter. She writes that schools are over-reacting to peanut allergies.  Naturally, some 270+ comments have now been posted on the Chatelaine website, the majority from parents of allergic children saying "Shame on You Chatelaine," calling Pearson irresponsible and stressing that life-threatening allergies must be taken seriously. Other parents have praised her for finally speaking out, saying parents of allergic children are hysterical and irrational.

As the mother of a peanut allergic child I have a unique perspective. Both sides are right: allergies must be taken seriously, but parents of allergic children often do blindly promote peanut bans without reflection. I support a sensible third way: risk management.

 Early in Kate’s school years we learned peanut bans were actually dangerous to her.  Their effectiveness relied completely on all the school's parents, staff and children honouring the ban. Twice peanut bans were broken around Kate by parents whose children would only eat peanut butter sandwiches. One parent at our tiny preschool told the child to quietly eat his lunch out in the play area. He did so on the swing set and he put his hands all over the swing's chain. Kate touched the chain later that day and there was enough residue that her face swelled up to twice its size and her eyes closed shut. She was taken to hospital where we tried to figure out how in the world she had come in contact with peanuts. Fortunately she did not put her hands into her mouth or she might have died. In search for the reasons for her reaction, we were told other children had seen the child eating his sandwich on the swing. The parent confessed that she had encouraged him because he would eat nothing else. She didn't want him to starve. The ban forced her to act surreptitiously and that put Kate in danger. A second incident occurred when a grandparent made a peanut butter sandwich and it came into Kate's Grade 1 classroom without anyone knowing. The fumes caused a serious asthma attack for Kate.

Those two incidents convinced me that peanut bans are quietly breached all the time leaving no protection in place. In fact Kate's safety was in the hands of some 600 people we did not know.  I wanted the control in our hands, and ultimately in Kate's hands. She is the one who must move through the world with her allergy. She must learn how to manage risk to keep herself safe.

 Here is how risk management deals with food allergies at schools and is applied to all children with or without allergies:

  • All food is eaten at children’s desks or the cafeteria ( no food in school yards, halls or playgrounds – this reduces risk of choking too.)
  • All desks or eating surfaces are wiped clean and hands washed before and after all food consumption. In particular, kids are charged with keeping their desktop and their hands clean and free of food residue ( This reduces transmission of viruses, too.)
  • The serious allergies in each classroom are noted and posted – nuts, peanuts, fish, egg, etc. If another child has a food that contains an allergen, it is announced. In Kate’s classroom, the kids would say: “I have peanut butter today, Kate” and arrangements would be made to put the two of them far apart and be extra careful with the clean up. Most of Kate’s friends decided they would not eat peanuts around her. But she always knew who had what.  It promoted communication and understanding. And the child with the shrimp allergy was safe, too.
  • We stressed to Kate, “If you don’t eat it, it won’t kill you.” She might get hives or wheezy, but she would be okay. She was calm around other people's food. She didn't freak out if she saw peanuts, she just kept herself away or washed her hands really well. She always carried her epi pen, asthma meds and antihistamines.
  • We also stressed: “Don’t eat what you don’t know” which meant no experimentation or food sharing. She learned to assess the risks of each situation and judge the places where peanuts traces might be hiding ( chocolate, ice cream, a jam or honey jar at a friend’s house, cross contamination at a Thai or Vietnamese restaurant.) She would avoid those situations.

These simple clear techniques not only kept her safe and in control of her own health – she had no further peanut reactions despite peanuts being all around her  – but kept other kids safe, too, no matter what their allergies. While I agree peanuts must not be eaten in closed air environments like airplanes – the risks are too high – I strongly encourage all parents of allergic children to lobby for the adoption of risk management rather than peanut bans. Then we can stop the ridiculous name calling and truly reduce the chance that an allergic child will come to harm.



Posted on Tuesday, November 10, 2009 at 05:00PM by Registered CommenterAnne | CommentsPost a Comment

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