The Peanut Butter Sandwich Under Threat

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LWA-Dann Tardif / Corbis

When Principal Deborah Bevan started school this past September at Craneville Elementary in Dalton, Mass., there was a peculiar topic of conversation circulating in the teachers lounge: Peanut butter. Or, more specifically, how to get rid of it.

Like hundreds of other school districts across the country, Craneville Elementary is facing a student body that is more allergic to peanuts than ever before. "I have never seen anything like this," says Bevan, a 25-year teaching veteran whose 489-student elementary school includes seven with peanut allergies this year. "These allergies came out of nowhere." To protect vulnerable students, Craneville and many other schools are being forced to establish what educators are calling "peanut-free zones" — areas in the cafeteria and throughout the school where nut products are banned; some schools are going nut-free altogether. In some districts, like Ladue in St. Louis, Mo. — which includes about half a dozen peanut-free schools — teachers must learn how to administer an adrenaline shot known as an EpiPen. The injection counteracts anaphylactic shock, a potentially deadly allergic reaction that results in closed airways and can be triggered by mere contact with a nut-based product.

According to the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network, peanut allergies more than doubled between 1997 and 2002 in children under 5 and are now estimated to affect more than 1% of school age children. "It is like being in a minefield," says Dr. Scott Sicherer, an associate professor of pediatrics, allergy and immunology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. Researchers don't yet know why these allergies are blooming, but some experts think premature exposure to nut-based products in infancy may be to blame. Others believe the link is genetic. Still others cite the hygiene hypothesis — the idea that more and more parents are oversanitizing their kids with antibacterial agents, causing their immune systems to become more susceptible to allergies.

Whatever the cause, some parents — of nonallergic children — grouse that it's unfair of the school to deprive healthy children of their favorite peanuty snacks. "Parents get very passionate and angry when their kids can't bring peanut butter to school," says Mike Tringale, director of external affairs at the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. "But you wouldn't throw razor blades all over the gymnasium. For these allergic kids, putting peanut butter in the cafeteria is the same thing."

For Craneville's Bevan, dealing with angry parents is the easy part. Trying to keep the kids safe, however, is daunting. "We are doing the best we can," Bevan says. "But it isn't easy. Peanuts are everywhere."