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The Age of the Food Allergy

April 25, 2013

In case you were living on a desert island the last decade or so, every other kid these days seems to have a food allergy. Whether it's a the concerned parent who calls ahead to get every last detail about the food you're going to serve at a birthday party, or the burger joint that posts warnings telling customers not to take the free peanuts outside because of the risk of causing a reaction in passing children, you can't avoid the specter of the anaphylaxis that now hovers over every discarded peanut shell, every PB & J sandwich, every grade-school cafeteria. For those who don't themselves have life-threatening allergies, or who don't have family members who have them, the "precious snowflake" reaction is fairly typical. It's an inconvenience to lots of people and, anecdotally, doesn't seem to be that big a problem anyway -- after all, they don't know anyone who's actually allergic to X, Y or Z. Over the last few months, more and more writers have been addressing that viewpoint eloquently. "Allergic families live in a parallel universe in which what is harmless to everyone else requires extreme vigilance from us," says Curtis Sittenfeld, whose daughter has reactions to peanuts, tree nuts, eggs and dairy. "Being the parent of a child with food allergies is like someone suddenly telling you the colors orange and gray are harmful to your child. I can guarantee that you'd soon realize orange and gray are everywhere." Sittenfeld goes on to plead with other parents to be careful with their kids' snacks at playgrounds and around potentially allergic children: "[W]hen I watched other children handle food, I felt like they were holding tiny snakes. Maybe the snakes were poisonous and maybe they weren?t; maybe they?d escape, and maybe they wouldn?t." In a New York Times Magazine article about an experimental food-allergy treatment, Melanie Thernstrom takes on some of the misconceptions about how allergies arise, chief among them the hygiene hypothesis, the once-prevalent idea that kids get allergies because they weren't exposed enough to potential problem sources -- which has morphed over the past couple decades into a not-so-veiled criticism of the parents of kids with allergies, i.e., "they're weak because you babied them too much." That theory, she notes, has fallen out favor, as has easy explanations scientists once sought in genetics. The new avenues of research are environmental toxins, smoking habits in the parents and grandparents, and prenatal and early-childhood diets. Back at Slate, Elizabeth Weingarten reacted to news of the so-far successful treatment with glee. But having food allergies, she noted, has made her a stronger person in many ways. "It has taught me to be assertive and persistent. Restaurant waiters and store clerks are often condescending and flippant when I ask about ingredients," she writes. "My nut allergy has also taught me to be my own protector and guardian." But maybe I'm biased toward their perspectives. I have allergies, a couple of them pretty severe, and one that once resulted...

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