Hidden Health: Schools deal with rise in food allergies

HiddenHealthBY STACI WILSON

In this article, the first of a three-part series, ‘Hidden Health,’ will look at the impact of food allergies and primarily focuses on exposure in schools. The next two articles, to appear in coming months will focus on autoimmune disorders and mental illness.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Ga., released findings in May that food allergies affecting children are on the rise.

The report found that one in five children now has an allergic condition – of those, food allergies pose the most serious threat to a child’s health most common cause of rapid onset and life-threatening anaphylaxis among those under the age of 18.

It’s an issue local schools have also been dealing with.

Elk Lake Superintendent Bill Bush said the district is seeing a growing percentage of students with food allergies.

“Ten, even five years ago, we didn’t see hardly any of this,” Bush said. “It’s part of the scenery now and schools will see it more and more.”

Bush continued, “I think, as a general statement, schools will try to accommodate the needs of its students – most do now.”

And Elk Lake has been accommodating – rising up to meet the needs of a student who has a severe allergy to peanuts.

Emily Podminick showed signs of allergies as a baby. At age two, she contracted hives after her first contact with peanut butter; at age four, the allergy was confirmed.

Her mother, Jennifer O’Brien, said that by the time Emily was six, her doctor said she would not “grow out” of the allergy- as some children do.

O’Brien said the food allergy changes everything. “I read every label”

She also said she takes her daughter only to a certain few restaurants and always calls ahead to see if peanuts or peanut oil has been used in anything.

“The things we take for granted, she doesn’t get. Things normal kids have that she’s never had,” O’Brien said.

Elk Lake has worked with O’Brien to limit Emily’s exposure. “They’ve been awesome at Elk Lake,” she said. “They’ve done absolutely everything we’ve asked them to do.”

As a parent of an allergic child, she says the district is “ahead of the game.”

“We’re in uncharted waters,” Bush said, “and we’re always trying to make decisions based on what is in the best interest of the students.”

Bush said there are designated classrooms in the elementary school that are peanut free.

But things are a little different in the high school, where Emily is a student. The school is no longer providing or preparing any peanut products for students.

But exposure doesn’t just come from the cafeteria, it can also come in the classroom.

Peanuts were used in one class demonstration, O’Brien said, and a student had the residue on his or her hands which came into contact with Emily who then had an allergic reaction.

“People do not know how serious this is,” O’Brien said. “It’s important to get the information out there. Cross-contamination is huge. It can send someone to the hospital.”

Emily’s father, Al Podminick, also urges parents to advocate for their kids.

“Don’t be afraid to speak up,” he advises. “I was actually shocked at how helpful (the school) was.”
Bush said Elk Lake’s biggest challenge going forward will be how to take on and deal with the issue from a standpoint of policy and procedure.

The district could soon have some help from state lawmakers.

The CDC findings prompted one Pennsylvania state senator to introduce legislation that would require schools to have a supply of epinephrine auto-injectors, commonly referred to as EpiPens, to treat an anaphylactic reaction.

Sen. Matt Smith of Allgheny/Washington introduced Senate Bill 898 in mid-May. He noted that schools are encouraged to keep a supply of EpiPens on hand but says that is not enough.

Smith said, “The number of children with food allergies and the incidence of life-threatening allergic reactions to food in schools are rising,” said Sen. Smith. “Schools are meant to be a safe place for children. It’s not enough to encourage schools to stock epinephrine injectors. To truly protect our children, we must ensure they have access to life-saving medication.”

The CDC report shows an increase in the prevalence of food allergies from 3.4 percent of children, ages 0-17, in 1997-99, to 5.1 percent in 2009-11.

Bush said that as more and more students with food allergies come into schools – the schools will make accommodations. “It’s really a different landscape.”

“It’s an evolving environment. Schools do a great job of transitioning and making accommodations,” Bush said. “It’s like building an airplane as it is flying.”