Remember when we were allowed to bring peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to school? What happened? How did we get to the point where peanut allergies are such a threat that children in many schools are no longer allowed to pack a PB&J?
It’s alarming. The rate of childhood peanut allergies has more than tripled from 1997 to 2008, according to the results of a nationwide survey; the data was reported in the most recent issue of the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.
Led by Scott H. Sicherer, MD, Professor of Pediatrics, Jaffe Food Allergy Institute at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, researchers surveyed a total of 5,300 households by telephone in 2008. The survey was previously conducted in 1997 and 2002. The prevalence of combined peanut or tree nut allergies in children was 2.1 percent in 2008, compared to 0.6 percent in 1997. The authors admit that there are limitations in the self-reported nature of a telephone survey, and identifying “true” allergy. However, the rate of childhood peanut allergy estimated in the current study is similar to results from studies using different methods in Canada, Australia and the UK.
“These results show that there is an alarming increase in peanut allergies, consistent with a general, although less dramatic, rise in food allergies among children in studies reported by the CDC,” said Dr. Sicherer. “The data underscore the need for more study of these dangerous allergies.” He continued, “Our research shows that more than three million Americans report peanut and/or tree nut allergies, representing a significant health burden. The data also emphasize the importance of developing better prevention and treatment strategies.”
Several theories exist as to why there could be a spike in food allergies. The main theory is the “hygiene hypothesis” which proposes that modern day “clean living” replete with anti-bacterial this and germ-killing that–and the use of medications to prevent and quickly treat infections–leaves our immune system in a state that is more prone to attack harmless proteins like those in foods, pollens, and animal dander. The millions of bacteria and viruses that enter the body along with ‘dirt’ spur the development of a healthy immune system–remove that and it throws our immune systems seriously off kilter.
Dr. Guy Delespesse, a professor at the Université de Montréal Faculty of Medicine, agrees that it all comes down to excessive cleanliness. Our limited exposure to bacteria concerns Dr. Delespesse, who is also director of the Laboratory for Allergy Research at the Centre hospitalier de l’Université de Montréal. “There is an inverse relationship between the level of hygiene and the incidence of allergies and autoimmune diseases,” says Dr. Delespesse. “The more sterile the environment a child lives in, the higher the risk he or she will develop allergies or an immune problem in their lifetime.”
I am sure most of us in industrialized countries are grateful to live in a time and place where disease-producing squalor isn’t rampant, but it’s become increasingly evident that we are living in a culture that has become over-zealous with our hygiene. When wild dolphins start showing signs of consumer anti-bacterial agents in their blood and schools can no longer allow peanuts, peanuts, in the lunchboxes of children, it seems time for a shift in thinking. It’s hard to shake the fear (of dirt, filth, germs and disease) that big corporations pound into us the consumers (in 2008, Americans spent over $5 billion on household cleaning products)–but we are swinging too far in the other direction. Do you think we can find a happy medium?