Every day I take a deep breath before I drop my 6-year-old off at school. She happily skips into the building, unaware of the knots in my stomach as I wave goodbye. As a millennial parent, I worry about things like gun violence, social media bullying, and unhealthy relationships. But these things take second fiddle to a risk that looms larger and more sinister in my daughter’s life: the risk of eating food.
For children like my daughter, who has had multiple food allergies since infancy, food is a ruthless and invisible killer. This killer is welcomed into schools, businesses, airplanes, and homes each day without question. It appears innocent yet wields methods of destruction as terrifying as any household poison. One wrong bite, one stray crumb, even a trace of residue left on a surface could land my daughter in the ER.
Life feels like a game of Russian roulette.
But I’m not alone. When it comes to food allergies, we’re living in unprecedented times. It’s estimated that up to 15 million Americans have food allergies, including 1 out of 13 children, or roughly two in each classroom. And that number is on the rise. The CDC reports that food allergy in children has increased by 50% between 1997 and 2011. That amounts to 5.9 million kids across the country who are ticking time bombs, forced to coexist in a world full of food that can hurt them with one misstep.
The recent tragedy of the 11 year-old boy in Brooklyn, who died on New Year’s Day after inhaling fish protein released into the air during cooking, underscores the need for greater public, business, and government awareness of the dangers and methodologies of death by food.
Over the last year several organizations have acknowledged the increasing prevalence and severity of food allergies. Southwest Airlines stopped serving peanuts on flights and Delta allows nut-allergic passengers to pre-board to wipe down seating areas. The FDA is in the process of considering sesame a “Top Allergen” (Europe and Canada already do) which would require manufacturers to identify sesame on the product label. Studies support the safety and effectiveness of oral immunotherapy treatment for peanut-allergic children, which helps children tolerate small amounts of peanut over time. Some companies are even trying to reengineer the peanut to be devoid of allergenic protein.
The progress is encouraging, but these advances don’t address every allergy or help every individual. Until there’s a cure for food allergies, it’s my job to keep my daughter safe. And, fellow parents, I’m asking for your help.
As a food allergy mom, I know what to look for if the unthinkable happens. But I also know how easy it is to be unaware of the hidden dangers of food.
Before kids, I didn’t think twice about eating nuts. I also had no idea that some allergens, like fish, can become airborne and cause a reaction in certain individuals. This is especially true within the confines of an airplane cabin.
I didn’t know how to read labels or that I needed to call manufacturers because current FDA labeling laws don’t require companies to disclose whether a food may be cross-contaminated with allergens due to shared equipment or facilities.
I didn’t know that a sesame or milk allergy could be as deadly as a peanut allergy or that nut proteins can linger in a person’s mouth for several hours after eating.
I didn’t know that a life-threatening anaphylactic reaction might start out with a few sneezes.
I didn’t know that, without immediate access to medicine, someone could die within minutes of consuming an allergen and that they might need two, three, or four EpiPens to save their life.
I didn’t know how to use an Epipen or that, after giving an Epipen or it’s equivalent, you must call 911 and go by ambulance to the ER because the reaction could return with a vengeance.
I didn’t know that food allergy bullying exists and that kids have died because of it.
I didn’t know any of these things. But now I do.
In 2019, none of us can afford that level of naivety. Because, although your child might not have a food allergy, the numbers guarantee that one of their friends does. And since you’ll inevitably host play dates, birthday parties, and sleepovers at your house, that means my child’s life will be in your hands.