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Take Me Out to the Ball Game… But Hold the Peanuts?

Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs, is one of the oldest ballparks in the nation.  It’s steeped in history and baseball lore.  Singing the national anthem at the beginning of the game first began at Wrigley during the 1918 World Series, and the field is said to be the locale of the first permanent concession stand in baseball.  But as of 2010, for at least one game, in at least one section, peanuts will not be sold.

The Chicago Sun-Times reports that during Monday’s 7:05 p.m. game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, “the centerfield Batter’s Eye skybox will be a peanut-free zone reserved for those with allergies.”  Kelly Rudnicki, author of The Food Allergy Mama’s Baking Book, is excited to take her son, John, who has a peanut allergy, to the game, saying, “It’s not only the opportunity for him to go to a baseball game, but it’s an opportunity to be around other kids like him.”  Kids like Julia Davis, who had to leave after a half-hour at her first Cubs game, because her allergies “caused her to break out in hives and begin wheezing.”

Before I go any further, I have to confess I have never seen a child in the throes of a peanut allergy.  I know anaphylaxis is no joke and would never want to see a child suffer it.  That being said, it concerns me that reports of food allergies increased 18% from 1997-2007, along with rates of hospital discharges related to food allergies, which nearly tripled from 1998-2006, according to the CDC.

Kidshealth.org, a site run by The Nemours Center for Children’s Health Media, points out that “it is rare that people get an allergic reaction just from breathing in small particles of nuts or peanuts…. And just the smell of foods containing peanuts won’t produce a reaction because the scent does not contain the protein.”  So why did Julia Davis begin wheezing at Wrigley Field?  The site explains that, “In the few cases when people do react to airborne particles, it’s usually in an enclosed area (like a restaurant or bar) where lots of peanuts are being cracked from their shells.”  But Wrigley Field is an open-air stadium.

What I’m saying is, maybe we should wait a minute before we start changing the lyrics of Take Me Out to the Ball Game from “Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jacks,” to “Seat me in the peanut-free skybox.”

It’s not that I don’t think all kids should be able to enjoy the game, but are we sure all kids that are thought to have peanut allergies actually have a peanut allergy?  Dr. Gary Stadtmauer, who teaches in the allergy fellowship program at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, says, “Many food allergies are actually food intolerances.”  He told PBS, “People commonly think an adverse reaction to something is a food allergy. That’s a leap that they should probably not be making.”  Which is not to say that the children in the Sun-Times story are not allergic, but PBS notes that a recent survey published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology suggests that the rise in peanut allergy is due to misdiagnosis.  Dr. Marc Riedl, an allergist and immunologist at UCLA, told The New York Times in May that “30 percent of the population believe they have food allergies,” but “about half the patients coming to his clinic because they had been told they had a food allergy did not really have one.”

So, am I suggesting that it’s possible kids could be wheezing at Wrigley because they think they have a peanut allergy that can make them cough from inhaling little tiny peanut particles floating in the air, when in reality, the science doesn’t support it?  Yes.  (The Food Allergy Initiative reiterates that, “Non-ingestion contact (touching peanuts or inhaling airborne peanut allergens, such as dust from the shells) is less likely to trigger a severe reaction.”)

Does that mean that Wrigley is doing anyone any harm by offering a peanut-free zone during games?  Of course not.  From a business standpoint, it’s brilliant.  Responding to the wishes of worried parents is only going to put more butts in seats.  But is it a good idea to rid the world of peanuts?  Absolutely not.  Especially since exposing people to tiny amounts of what they’re allergic to is how doctors treat allergies.  (Not that shots work, necessarily.  I took allergy shots for at least six years and the only thing that got me over my hayfever was moving out of the country and into the city.)

In fact, eliminating allergens is what many scientists believe to be causing so many allergies.  According to PBS, “the hygiene hypothesis first proposed two decades ago by British researcher David Strachan… suggests that a lack of exposure to germs and bacteria during the formative years have weakened contemporary immune systems.”  Riedl believes that “could result in higher rates of food allergies.”  He doesn’t seem entirely wrong.

Photo: Ivana Simovic

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