What’s the best peanut policy to prevent severe allergic reactions in schools?
© 2017 Roy Benaroch, MD
Peanut-free schools, peanut-free rooms, peanut-free tables – they’re all an effort to protect children who have severe peanut allergies from accidental exposures. We’d all like to make sure our school are as safe as possible for everyone. So what’s the best policy on peanuts and tree nuts?
A study in press at the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology adds some science to the debate. Researchers looked back at peanut allergy experiences at Massachusetts public schools from 2006-2011. They polled every public school from K through 12 to determine their “peanut policy”. Though the response rate was only about 55%, the policies varied a lot – from completely no-serve, no-bring peanut schools (about 2-3%), to no peanuts allowed from home (about 10%), no peanuts served by the school (60%), to keeping some classrooms peanut free (70%), to having designated “peanut free tables” in the cafeteria (this was the most common policy in place, accounting for about 90% of the schools). (Some schools had multiple policies, so the numbers are > 100%). The peanut policies remained about the same for the 5 years of the study, and didn’t vary too much from elementary to high schools.
Data was also collected on every episode at school where epinephrine was administered. Epinephrine is the drug given to treat a serious allergic reaction (that’s the medicine in those weirdly expensive Epi-pens.) It turns out that Massachusetts schools must file a form when epi is given, so those were easy to track. Over the 5 years, epinephrine was given to children having an allergic reaction to peanuts in Massachusetts public schools about 20-40 times per year, with a modest increase from year-to-year during the study. We’re not talking huge numbers, here. Epinephrine administration was used as a “proxy”, or substitute number, for the actual number of peanut reactions in the schools – though it’s possible that epi was sometimes given when it wasn’t indicated, or sometimes was withheld when it should have been given.
The results are interesting. Of the peanut policies in place, the only one associated with a significantly decreased number of epinephrine uses was the presence of peanut-free tables in eating areas. Other policies, including having an entirely peanut-free school, did not result in fewer instances of epinephrine use. In other words, a school with a policy to be completely free of peanuts didn’t seem safer for peanut-allergic kids than a school that allowed peanuts to be brought from home.
These results aren’t super-strong. The number of serious reactions was small, and the number of absolutely peanut-free schools was small, too. There were only two nut reactions in the peanut-free schools (and one of them was in a boy that brought his own walnut cookie from home, despite being known to be walnut allergic.) When you crunch the numbers, the per capita chance of reactions in nut-free schools was actually higher than in schools with less-restrictive numbers, but with numbers so small I don’t think you can hang your hat on that conclusion.
A few lessons can be learned from this study. Even among schools that claimed to be “peanut free”, many allowed peanuts to be brought from home. Schools should have clear policies that make sense to parents. It’s also clear that even truly peanut-free schools aren’t a guarantee that no peanut exposures will occur—schools shouldn’t just declare no nuts, and leave it at that.
I wonder if the relative superiority of peanut-free tables is because that policy is easier to enforce. When an entire school is meant to be “peanut free”, you might be more likely to have some families break the rules. Also, “peanut free” policies might lead to a false sense of security among children who are nut allergic. They still have to watch what they eat. This study didn’t look into these factors, or how well peanut policies were enforced, or exactly how children were exposed in every instance.
Allergic reactions to peanuts are not common in schools, but when they do occur they can rapidly become life-threatening. Avoidance of exposures is the main way to treat peanut allergies; and when a serious reaction does occur, epinephrine should be given immediately. Beyond that, we just don’t know what the most-effective school policy should be. This study gives us some insight, but we’ve still got more to learn.
edit: Here’s a tangentially-related, sickening story about the apparent hazing of a peanut-allergic college student. What the hell is wrong with people? Accidents happen, but this is just…. just… I have no words.