A Calm Voice in the "Nut Hysteria" Storm

Sloane Miller Health Guide
  • Dr. Nicholas Christakis certainly caused quite a stir on the blogs when he said that school and parents are engaging in mass panic about food allergies. I didn't necessarily disagree with him. Here's what I said on Healthcentral.com.


    This past year, Time Magazine reporters have written several stories about nut allergies and this week they looked at Dr. Nicholas Christakis' assertion: that school and parents are engaging in mass panic about nut allergies and how to adequately keep their nut-allergic children safe from nuts. In an article entitled, "Have Americans Gone Nuts Over Nut Allergies?" (no one can avoid those nutty puns, can they?) they interviewed Dr. Robert Wood, chief of the Pediatric Allergy and Immunology department at Johns Hopkins Children's Center who has nut allergies as well.

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    Dr. Wood's voice seems to be the calm in the storm and my concern is that voices like his are not heard often enough and do not get as much media attention as "school bans peanuts" and "mass hysteria."

    Here's a portion of what he said in the Time article (it's worth reading the whole thing):

    "...on blogs run by moms of children with nut allergies, there is a consistent rallying cry for nut-free zones. The concern is airborne nut dust, which can be inhaled, or oily nut residues that can come into contact with children's skin. Wood, who has been allergic to nuts all his life, says these parents' worries may be exaggerated. The danger may depend on the severity of the allergy, but has much more to do with the degree of contact, he says. "Nut oils or the kinds of things that might be in a classroom - it's very rare for that exposure to cause anything more than a localized reaction," he says. "On the other hand, if you're a preschooler and your hands are in your mouth a lot, all bets are off."


    As for nut dust in the air, Wood says it can cause severe reactions - but only under specific circumstances, with high concentrations of nut dust in a confined space. At a baseball game, for example, where the dust is quickly dispersed through the air, the risk of an allergic reaction is low. But if you sat a long time in the small waiting room of a restaurant with a dish of nuts and servers who kept passing through, with plates of nuts, your risk of an allergic reaction would be higher, he says.


    But like Christakis, Wood cautions against excessive alarm. "It's an unfortunate situation," says Wood, "if a family with an inaccurate perception of the allergy leads a child to believe that a Snickers bar from 50 feet away is a lethal weapon."


    Where does this "inaccurate perception" come from? Is mainstream media fanning the flames? Are allergists giving inaccurate information to parents? Because Dr. Wood is very correct in stating that misinformation is creating excessive alarm.


Published On: January 05, 2009