My daughter has a peanut allergy. Actually, she is allergic to all nuts, as well as a variety of other foods. In my world, the other food allergies don’t count because they only make her uncomfortable – the nut allergy is a different story. That’s life or death.
But how do you explain that to the three-year-old covered in PB&J at the park or the mother who just fed him on the bench and allowed him to run and touch the slide, monkey bars and swings without wiping off his hands and face? Who am I to tell people what to feed their kids or how to clean them up?
For parents who don’t have a kid whose life could be put in danger thanks to little Mr. Peanut, my distress might seem overly dramatic. The problem is that peanut butter is not the sole culprit. Peanut oil and residue are just as dangerous if not more so. A smudge of peanut butter can be seen and therefore avoided, but residue is a hidden danger that can turn a carefree afternoon in the park into a life-threatening nightmare of Epi-pens and ambulances. So even though my daughter just wanted to play and enjoy a day at the park, thanks to that boy, she instead finished her grilled cheese sandwich in the car as we drove home.
My daughter’s allergy creates a very dangerous dilemma that sometimes causes me to wonder: Can you ban peanuts from public places? Is it illegal to tell parents their kids can no longer eat the cheap, easy, protein-packed snack that has sustained kids for generations? Do we consider the safety of few or the convenience of many?
If peanuts were banned from the public like cigarettes, my daughter’s quality of life would change drastically. Case in point: She was invited to a birthday party a few years ago, and the mom had checked in with me regarding my daughter’s allergy. I was so thankful because too many times I had come up against angry parents who felt having my daughter in the class was an inconvenience. I was grateful for the parents who made efforts, but quickly found that for the parents who do not have a child with such severe allergies, the goodwill attempts often fall short. But when we got to that party, I learned that rather than removing PB&J from the menu (which is where I thought we were at the end of the conversation), the mom had instead insured there would be an alternate for my daughter to eat. Unfortunately, her “safe” turkey sandwich was placed on the serving tray with all the others, and it looked as if her sandwich had been cut with a PB&J knife. We had to leave the party before everyone started eating because I knew it would not be fair to try to have every child scrubbed down after eating just so my child could participate in party games without fear of coming into contact with peanut residue.
Whether it’s the server at the bagel shop who doesn’t pay attention to where she dips the spreader or another parent who unknowingly serves my kid a toxic sandwich, the level of public understanding of severe allergies is minimal at best and life-threatening at worst. In fact, an 11-year follow-up study published in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology this year concluded that peanut and tree nut allergies are prevalent in more than 1 percent of the U.S. population (nearly 3 million people) with an increase in the reported number of cases in children over the last decade.
Still, the rise in peanut-allergic individuals has not prompted universal precautions, which makes living with this allergy very challenging for the child and the parents. Every little thing has to be considered: The child has to be trained to ask questions before eating a cookie, a cupcake, candy, even bread. Packages have to be read for the warning, “May have been manufactured in a plant that processes peanuts or tree nuts.” Food cannot be shared and if a child has a birthday party at school and no one is sure about the cupcakes, my daughter has a piece of fruit or yogurt or, if she’s really lucky, a chocolate chip muffin that I made and asked the nurse to store in her freezer. Being left out can bruise the ego and is just as much an emergency as a skinned knee.
When she was younger, my daughter attended a peanut-free day care which gave me a few years reprieve and a false sense of safety. But now she is in public school, and for the second year, her lunch experience has been to sit at a separate, peanut-free lunch table. In her school, that means the table where she sits (a regular desk at the “head” of the table where the rest of her class sits) will never have exposure to peanuts. But that does not protect her from the rest of the school and any exposure or contamination she may encounter as a result of the other children’s PB&J lunches. That scares me more than you can imagine. We have four Epi-pens at the ready. School, day care and babysitters all have been trained to use one if necessary.
The dangers can lurk at home as well. One day a few years ago, we had a huge scare. My daughter staggered out of the pantry closet with an odd look on her face, screamed, “my tongue feels funny” and proceeded to become violently ill. I snatched her up off the floor and ran around the kitchen grabbing Benadryl, the Epi-pen, my cell phone and the landline while begging her to tell me what she put in her mouth. I called the ambulance with one phone and the pediatrician with the other, meanwhile forcing her to drink Benadryl and grateful to hear her screaming because that meant she had not stopped breathing.
The culprit: A cashew she found that had fallen to the pantry floor from her father’s (now my ex) secret mixed nut stash. We were lucky. She hadn’t actually eaten the nut, she had merely put it to her tongue to taste. As a result, her hand, tongue and cheek became red, swollen and inflamed, and she threw up violently. Thankfully, she hadn’t put it completely into her mouth. The ER sent her home with a clean bill of health and reminders to me to be mindful of what I keep within her reach. I did not sleep well that night, angry about what had happened and jealous of other parents who don’t have to worry about such things.
What I’ve learned from my experiences is no matter how much we as parents try to protect our children, something can go wrong. So my hope is that until a cure or vaccine is created for this life-threatening allergy, maybe all schools and day cares will see fit, for the safety of the children and the sanity of the parents, to ban peanut products.