Student health: Peanut allergy risk factors on campus and in the dining hall

Nut allergiesWhen talking about campus safety, most people think about crime on college campuses. What they may not think about are the health risks for people with severe allergies. Following the death of Natalie Giorgi, a thirteen year old with a severe peanut allergy, who had a deadly allergic reaction after inadvertently ingesting a treat at camp containing peanut butter, peanut allergies are again making the news. While children receive the majority of attention on this topic, college students face risks from not only dorm room treat sharing, but also from lax administrative policies. If you have a nut allergy, what risk factors do you face on campus or in the dining hall? If you are working with children as part of your academic program, what steps should you take to keep young students safe?

Hollywood, it’s no joke

For some people with nut allergies – or intolerances – the risks aren’t too great: upset stomachs or a few hours of discomfort. But for others, like Natalie Giorgi and college freshman Cameron Groezinger-Fitzpatrick, who died from half a cookie he ate over spring break of 2013, nut allergies aren’t something to be laughed off. Hollywood might find nut allergies amusing, but for sufferers, parents and friends, it’s no joke. Amanda Brice, writing on Peanut Butter on the Keyboard in the August 21, 2013, post “Guest mom Amanda Brice on food allergies,” mentioned two controversies over the summer that tried for laughs from this serious issue: a commercial on network Nick, Jr. and the film Smurfs 2. “I know it might seem like it’s not that big of a deal: ‘It’s a joke. Relax.’ But that’s the point. It’s not. Not to kids who have to deal with food allergies every day. Kids who constantly have to inspect everything they eat so their throats don’t swell up and they die can’t just relax.”

Brice cited a 2008 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that offered the following statistics:

  • Food or digestive allergies increased 18% between 1997 and 2007
  • Every three minutes, someone goes to the emergency room with a nut allergy reaction
  • Allergic reactions can range from eczema and shortness of breath to anaphylaxis
  • Intolerance reactions include gas cramps, heartburn and headaches

According to a March 15, 2013, article by Karen Keller, reporting for ABC News,College freshman with peanut allergy dies after eating a cookie,” at least three million American children suffer from food or digestive allergies. And while Keller reported that food allergies may come from genetic, environmental and dietary factors, no one is really sure what causes them.

Accident prevention

If you are on campus, or student teaching in an elementary classroom, what can you do to prevent disaster for yourself or for others?

Reduce the risk for yourself by:

  • Getting off the campus meal plan, if possible, and cooking your own meals. That gives you full control of your diet.
  • Get in touch with services through the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). A 2012 settlement required Lesley University in Cambridge, MA, to accommodate a student with celiac disease, or a severe allergy to gluten.
  • Read food labels and watch out for cross-contamination. Foods often have a warning that states if they might have been prepared with the same equipment as nut-based products.
  • Talk with your doctor about carrying an Epi-Pen.
  • Check labels on products besides food. Shampoos and other products can contain nut oils or byproducts.

Reduce the risk factors for others by:

  • Being aware of the dangers and aware of what ingredients are in foods you serve.
  • Respect nut-free rules in schools or programs that eliminate peanuts, tree nuts and coconuts; be aware of rules that discourage foods in classrooms, both around young students and on campus.
  • Know how to use an Epi-Pen if someone with a food allergy cannot administer their own.

Keep the conversation going

In May 2013, student Kelsey Hough had to withdraw from the University of Washington, Tacoma, due to the severity of her peanut allergy and the inability of the school to accommodate her needs. During her first year at college, the campus posted signs on classrooms banning peanuts and nuts, giving Hough a safe classroom experience. But the signs disappeared after the first year because administrators deemed the rules too difficult to enforce.

“I felt like I’d just been kicked out of school,” Hough was quoted as writing by Katie Moisse for ABC News in the May 13, 2013, article “Student says peanut allergy forced college withdrawal.” Hough continued, “I knew that I wouldn’t be safe.”

Though Hough was not asked to leave, she knew she could not remain on a campus where she couldn’t be sure of her health. And while the ADA has made some progress for allergy sufferers, not every administration has decided to abide by the act’s suggestions.

While you may enjoy having a PB&J or crunching on macadamia nuts while crossing the campus quad, your awareness that others can have severe reactions – not just from eating nuts, but from sharing a pencil or a laptop with someone who has peanut oil on their fingers – can help keep others safe. And if you suffer from a nut allergy, enlisting your friends to help make changes to campus culture can keep you – and others – safe in the future.

Do you think campuses should be more strict to allow allergy-suffering students like Hough to safely attend class?

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