We have a lot to learn from the peanuts, and I'm not talking about the wisdom of Charlie Brown and Lucy, though that has its place. I'm talking about peanut allergy research that has applications beyond the presence of Skippy and in school cafeterias.
According to a study in The New England Journal of Medicine this week, the vast majority of peanut allergies are likely caused by a lack of exposure to peanuts. Hypercautious guidelines and hyperventilating parenting have been sickening our children at increasing rates.
The incidence of peanut allergies has skyrocketed in this country. I don't remember encountering peanut allergies or worries about them when I was a kid in the 1970s. Any parents who argued for banning peanut butter in my South Carolina elementary school would have likely been shunned as Communists or burned as witches.
But in 1997, 0.4 percent of U.S. children had peanut allergies. By 2008, that had climbed to 1.4 percent, and in 2008, to 2 percent. In 11 years, the percentage of children affected quintupled.
That seemed nutty. So scientists did a broad test of more than 500 infants from 4 to 11 months old considered at high risk of developing peanut allergies. All the kids were tested, and the 10 percent who showed a serious allergy were eliminated from the study. Those who showed a mild allergy or no allergy yet were both split into two groups, with half getting some peanut product and others getting no peanut products, until all the kids turned 5.
Among the kids who originally showed no peanut allergy, 13.7 percent of the ones denied peanuts developed the allergy, while only 1.9 percent of the ones fed peanut products did. And in the group that originally showed a mild allergy, 35.3 percent of those forced to avoid peanut protein still had the allergy at age 5, while only 10.6 percent of those eating the stuff did.
Peanuts, then, for most infants, can prevent peanut allergies, and other studies are showing the same results with many allergens. Research has even shown kids with full-blown peanut allergies can slowly come to tolerate them starting with tiny doses, a process known as immunotherapy. And the doctors involved in the study said the mindset that infants need to be sheltered from peanut protein, as well as other allergens, is wrong and must change.
Similarly, I think hyperprotective parents (including, shamefully, myself) are in danger of producing "allergic to real life" children.
There's no way to argue against, say, bike helmets and other protective gear without sounding like an idiot, but . . . I'm going to give it a shot. I know, statistically, this stuff saves lives and knees and elbows. The same would be true if we wore helmets and pads on stairs and every time we got in a car. I'm writing it as a joke, but imagine it trending.
But have you noticed that since we made kids start suiting up like Buzz Lightyear to ride, few bother? Not that we'd let our treasures bike out of sight. Last month a Maryland couple became momentarily famous when they let their 6- and 10-year-old kids walk a mile home from a park together and ended up being the subjects of a county child protective services investigation. That type of trek would have been normal for siblings that age to tackle together when I was young. Kids not exposed to such experiences seem likely to become allergic to such experiences.
And this is where the peanut study comes in, as we parents try to prepare our kids for adulthood. Which kids will become allergic to self-sufficiency, to situations that demand thought and toughness, to difficult encounters with peers and to mildly scary new challenges? The ones who've been exposed in small doses all along, or the ones who've never encountered such real dilemmas.
Lane Filler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.