How an alarmist media has fueled our peanut hysteria
Potential peanut hazard lurks in school kids' lunch bags!School unable to supervise boy with killer allergy!Shocking truth about curries that can kill!Girl dies from peanut allergy after kissing boyfriend!Police allege man smeared peanut-based substance on allergic ex-fiancé's car!The list of peanut-related stories goes on, but the scientific truth is more complicated–and less tabloid-ready. In the case of the peanut-butter kiss of death, a coroner later found that the girl had died from an asthma attack. Another allergist told Harper's magazine that he sometimes spreads peanut butter on an allergic patient's arm to demonstrate that children will not die from casual contact and challenge parents' fears (the malicious intent of the former fiancé aside).After nearly two decades on the rise, the public alarm over food allergies now rivals that of childhood obesity. There's even evidence that allergies may be exacerbated by obesity, which could increase food sensitization. Others say the steady increase in food allergy diagnoses has been caused by changes in food processing and our lack of exposure to food contaminants, which can aid in the development of a healthy immune system. Still, alarmist news reports about fatal food allergies are mostly a blend of cultural hysteria, sensational coverage, and uncertain science (although they hardly represent the modern equivalent of parrot fever, an outbreak cooked up by imaginative journalists).There are legitimate concerns and cases of fatal food allergies do exist, but the extreme, blanket precautions do more to fuel parental anxiety than protect a select few. One study found that early exposure to peanuts actually lowered the risk of developing an allergy, rather than increasing it.Now, in light of the mass hysteria, The Washington Post reports that funding for new research has increased. One pilot study showed that children receiving low doses of peanut powder no longer suffered allergic reactions within six months and were able to tolerate peanuts in their regular diet. In England, a separate team of scientists found that a small sample of allergic children learned to cope with the equivalent to five whole peanuts.While there's no doubt genuine food allergies can be more frightening than chronic diseases-symptoms often include the unexpected onset of swelling, hives, and an inability to breathe-the number of deaths is relatively small. As Harvard Medical School professor Nicholas A. Christakis points out, more children die being driven to school each year than die from nut allergies (PDF). Food allergies are not like second-hand smoke and should not be regulated as such. Social boundaries drawn around smokers shouldn't resemble those drawn around people eating shellfish, milk, or other foods that can potentially cause allergies.When it comes to priorities, anxious parents should focus their efforts on food safety in general–ensuring there is no E. coli in any peanuts, for example–rather than fighting for school prohibitions or token disclaimers ("This product may contain nuts") intended to accommodate those with food allergies. After all, it's the halls of Congress not the halls of the elementary school that need more attention and oversight.