Mass Hysteria

A couple of months ago, there was a bit of a thing when someone said that the concern about nuts and nut-free zones was showing all signs of flirting with mass hysteria. Dr. Nicholas Christakis, who himself allergic to nuts, was quoted as saying that the efforts of schools to declare themselves completely nut-free, including banning nuts and peanut butter from the school, as well as homemade goods and foods without detailed ingredient labels were a "gross overreaction to the magnitude of the threat". Comparatively, the 150 people who die of food allergies and 2000 hospitalized patients due to food allergies every year in the US are a tiny amount compared to say, brain injuries acquired while playing sports, car accidents, etc. And it's possible that we're not all as allergic as we think - just recently, I read an article (I forget where exactly) about how children who’d been diagnosed through allergy tests with e.g., six food allergies requiring a diet free of such allergens had been tested by exposure - i.e. come into a doctor's office, eat the food, see what happens - and it was found that on average, the actual food allergies tended to be about half of what had been identified. And yes, it's entirely possible that exposure to nut dust will generally only cause extreme reactions in certain rare situations (more on that here), but here's the thing...

I am allergic to nuts (and other things on a long, long list). Not peanuts, as far as I know, but tree nuts, specifically Northern tree nuts like walnuts and hazelnuts - as I used to adore these kinds of nuts, I think it particularly cruel - and again, as far as I know, not allergic enough that I can't go by the bulk container of the things. Except you never know, do you? It’s entirely possible that my next exposure to nuts will cause a much more severe reaction than the last one I had. And as a person whom the little buggers could kill, I appreciate nut-free zones. Knowing that I don't have to be alert and on the lookout at all times is very relaxing. Knowing I won't have to run that internal assessment about how close am I to the nuts, whether that's too close, what if this is the time that being next to the nuts is going to mean I need to grab my EpiPen because my throat is closing up is very relaxing (I don't spend every moment in a state of panic, but the thing does run in the back of your mind). Knowing that every food on the premises is safe for me to eat is beyond relaxing. And I bet it's relaxing for parents, too, to know that they can send their kid to school without worrying that they'll get a call to meet their child at the hospital. Or worse.

I was diagnosed with a nut allergy about 10 years ago and it changed how I ate. Or rather, didn’t eat. Not only did I have to go cold turkey on nuts, I also had to start obsessively reading ingredient labels. Because if something has been made in an environment that contain nuts, I couldn't eat it. I haven't had really good bread in a decade because all the really good bread tends to be baked on equipment that's also been used to bake things with nuts. I haven't had garlic bread in a decade, I haven't had a croissant in longer than I care to think about and I never eat birthday cake. I don't eat ice cream anymore, although very occasionally, if I'm with people I trust to act appropriately should they need to (because we've had a training session with the EpiPen), I have had a small taste of their ice cream. Until very recently, I hadn’t had more than the occasional cookies in years and my only choice for chocolate is Nestlé's quartet of nut-free products (Kit Kat, Smarties, Coffee Crisp and Aero) and let me tell you, that ain't chocolate. In the last couple of years, really good chocolate - like sinfully dark chocolate with tiny bits of orange crunch - has become way more prevalent in North America and I can't have any of it. There is Vermont NutFree and they do good chocolate, but seriously. If I want a piece of good chocolate I have to send away to another country for it?

And it's changing. The "mass hysteria" is creating a demand in the market to which manufacturers are responding. Most, possibly all, of Dare’s products bear a notice on the packaging that it’s manufactured in a nut-free facility and this means I can have crackers again. It means that when I look at the wall of packages in the cookie aisle, I can zero in on Dare’s logo and know that there is a really good chance I'm going to be able to eat those cookies (although I still check the labels obsessively). The mass hysteria has served a purpose. It has allowed people like me to buy products in the grocery store instead of e.g., the specialty food store at the Hospital for Sick Children and it has vastly expanded the amount of products I can now eat without worrying about anaphylaxis. The mass hysteria has increased awareness to such a point that I've heard of a restaurant that is completely nut-free, there are bakeries that are nut-free (okay, so primarily not nut-free, but it still works and one of these days, I hope they open one near me) and it has opened up the world a little bit more than it was.

We who are allergic to nuts may be a minority and a tiny one at that and maybe it isn't as dangerous as all that most of the time, but I bet that most people would appreciate knowing 100% that a) you can accept a cookie from your host; b) you won't have to go into a long explanation about why you can't eat the cookie because if you keep rejecting what's offered, your host might get their feelings hurt (or discreetly throw it out when no one’s looking); and c) when you bite into the cookie, it won't put you a life-threatening anaphylaxis. Just as despite only a relatively small percentage of the population requires ramps, contrast color outlines, visible firealarms, etc., we as a society has determined that accessibility is important enough that we allow for it in that legislation. Because we are a society that have decided we want to be inclusive, rather that exclusive and as such, the majority make concession to the minority. Let's not forget that at the beginning of all social change movements, whether it be civil rights, access or gender equality, the people leading that movement were often considered unreasonable and well, more than a little nuts.

But the results mean something. Thank god for mass hysteria.