Tim Spector, a Professor of Genetic Epidemiology at Kings College in London says the risk of an allergic reaction from nut dust is nonexistent.
Photo via Flickr user Christian Schnettelker
As the therapist of any helicopter mom will tell you, nothing gets parents crazier than a scientific study that rivals their dearly held beliefs.
So just imagine what the response will be when the parents of children like four-year-old Fae Platten hear the new reports that scientists have decided that there is no such thing as airborne peanut allergies.
Fae was on a Ryanair flight recently and had to be taken off the plane by paramedics. Why? Because a passenger refused to heed warnings by flight attendants that a child with severe nut allergies was on board and that they should refrain from indulging in nuts for the duration of the flight. A Zimbabwean man, sitting four rows behind the girl, allegedly opened a package of nuts and began to eat. According to reports, Fae stopped breathing and was only saved by the injection of an EpiPen, administered by the flight crew. Passengers had evidently been told three times not to eat nuts on the short, three-and-a-half hour flight. People are awesome, right?
But now, some scientists are arguing that these reactions are a myth. Tim Spector, a Professor of Genetic Epidemiology at Kings College in London says the risk of an allergic reaction from nut dust is nonexistent. (All we can say is good luck to you, Mr. Spector, when parents of kids like Fae get wind of your assessment.)
Spector claims that although nut allergies are very much real, and growing in prevalence—almost 10 percent of children suffer from some sort of food allergy, and nut allergies are among the most common—he says it can only be triggered through actual contact. According to Tim Spector, who wrote the book The Diet Myth, Spector and his colleagues "have worked for many years testing thousands of children with severe allergic reactions—had 'never heard of nut vapors causing these severe reactions.'"
Them there are fighting words. At least we can all agree "nut vapors" is most likely the single greatest phrase ever uttered.
But they don't stop there. The scientists say that although peanut particles can form dust, studies have not shown that the amount is enough to trigger an allergic reaction.
With respect to little Fae Platten's Ryannair horror story, the scientists "all agreed that the plane incident as it was reported could not have occurred however strong the plane air conditioning or the belief of the parents. Her lips or tongue must have touched something else directly. The timing was unfortunate and the exact trigger still a mystery."
Yikes. We don't make the news, folks. We just report it.
The scientists, in fact, say that restricting peanut eating may lead to more allergy problems, not fewer.
Here's how their reasoning goes. They believe that one reason for the rise in food allergies over the last few decades—apparently peanut allergies were virtually unknown before the late 1960's—is caused by restricted diets, especially during pregnancy. According to Spector, Australian researchers have found that a mother's diet during pregnancy can cause or prevent allergies in their progeny. "The higher the fiber content and the more food diversity, the lower the rate of subsequent allergies," according to the study. Eating a varied diet—including nuts—can prevent nut allergies, say these researchers.
Furthermore, eating a diverse, high-fiber, nutty diet causes pregnant women to have increased gut microbes that produce an anti-inflammatory compound called acetate, which positively affects their babies' immune systems.
Hence, the scientists say, diversity of diet, with lots of nuts included, is key. They also point to evidence that re-introducing nuts in tiny amounts could be a cure for peanut allergies.
The anti-airborne allergy theorists and their believers have this to say: "We all need to increase consumption of 'microbe-friendly' foods, a diverse range of fiber-rich and fermented foods including regular nuts and seeds, with less fear about holding back from what children eat." And so they have no problem with people eating peanuts on planes.
Easy to say when it's not your kid having a life-threatening allergy attack. The debate will, undoubtedly, continue.