Peanut Peril


At my daughter's school, which prides itself on the diversity of its students, at least one form of intolerance is actively encouraged. "WE ARE A PEANUT FREE SCHOOL," says a sign near the entrance.

Peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches–long a staple of school lunches because kids like them, they're easy to make, and they supply protein (one of the few nutrients you can't get from an animal-shaped vitamin)–are strictly forbidden at West Side Montessori. So are peanut-butter crackers and candy, cookies, or granola bars containing peanuts.

For most parents, this policy is a nuisance. But for the few whose kids are allergic to peanuts, it creates a zone of comparative safety in a world filled with a potentially lethal contaminant that almost everyone considers innocuous.

The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology estimates that 2 million Americans are allergic to peanuts. Symptoms range from hives, itching, and swelling to anaphylactic shock, which involves respiratory distress and a sharp drop in blood pressure. If not treated promptly with an injection of epinephrine (which people with peanut allergies are told always to keep handy), severe reactions can be fatal.

Such cases are quite unusual, however. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention counted only 88 deaths from all food allergies combined from 1979 through 1995. Even the Food Allergy Network, an advocacy group that says the government's figures are way off, puts the number of deaths at 125 a year–25 times the CDC's rate, but still pretty rare.

The odds that any given individual with a peanut allergy will die from it may be small, but such people are understandably anxious about the prospect. Since peanut allergies start in early childhood and cannot be cured, they require a lifetime of vigilance: reading ingredients, calling food manufacturers, asking probing questions in restaurants, and so on.

The challenge of avoiding peanuts is in some ways similar to the one posed by Jewish dietary laws. In both cases, ingredient lists can be misleading, either because of arcane terms or because food may be tainted by other products made with the same machinery. Plain M&Ms may contain traces of peanuts, just as a vegetable soup may contain traces of unkosher meat.

Observant Jews have a lot more things to keep track of, but at least they can look for a symbol of approval from an inspection organization they trust. And the physical consequences of a mistake are usually not as serious.

Still, it is reasonable to ask how much the rest of us must adjust our behavior to accommodate the 0.7 percent or so whose bodies cannot tolerate peanuts. Here I will tread carefully, since that unfortunate minority includes Bob Poole, president of the Reason Foundation, which publishes the magazine for which I work.

Though I initially thought the peanut ban at my daughter's school was silly, a case can be made for such a policy in a building filled with young children. The kids at West Side Montessori are 3 to 5, and it may be impractical to make sure that all of them refrain from sharing food and wash their hands thoroughly after eating.

Parents who don't like the peanut ban can always look for a school with a less rigid policy, but they may soon have trouble finding one. The threat of litigation could ultimately drive peanuts from all schools, including those serving students who are old enough to monitor their own diets.

A school that does not ban peanuts could face a lawsuit for negligence if a child has an allergic reaction. Even if there are no mishaps, it could be sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) for failing to "accommodate" kids with allergies.

ADA-inspired complaints were the impetus for the U.S. Department of Transportation's recent directive instructing airlines to create "peanut-free zones" around allergic passengers. Since experts say the risk of a life-threatening allergic reaction to airborne peanut particles is negligible, this policy could set a dangerous precedent for interpreting the ADA's requirements.

On the other hand, you could say the DOT rule is no big deal, especially since airlines often will voluntarily switch an entire flight's snack from peanuts to pretzels if they are notified of a passenger's allergy in advance. The ADA, after all, is aimed at transforming requests into demands by mandating the sort of consideration for which, in a less enlightened time, people might actually have been grateful.