Sunday, April 24, 2011
Rally Around the Peanut?
Last month in Edgewater Public Elementary School in Volusia County, Florida, a group of parents picketed the school protesting measures that had been taken to protect an 8 year old student with severe peanut allergies. Measures being taken included banning lunches from the classroom and requiring children to wash their hands and rinse their mouths prior to entering the classroom.
On April 20, CNN reported that the US Department of Transportation, after requesting public comment on possible measures to protect passengers with peanut allergies, declined to take any action, stating: "The Department is prohibited by law from restricting the serving of peanuts aboard aircraft unless a peer-reviewed study determines that serving of peanuts causes severe reactions among airline passengers. There has been no such peer-reviewed study, so we declined to take action at this time."
Peanut allergies are not at all uncommon and vary greatly in terms of how large a dose of peanut allergens is required to trigger a reaction and the severity of that reaction. There is debate about how many individuals are actually subject to very severe peanut allergic reactions. However, there are certainly people for whom even airborne exposure to peanut allergens can cause a severe allergic reaction and even death.
Assuming that the child involved in the Florida case does indeed have such a severe allergy, does the inconvenience of the measures imposed by the school really outweigh the safety of the child? In order to avoid inconveniencing other children, should this child be forced to withdraw from public school? The presence of the affected child should be used as an opportunity to teach the other children in the school that in our society we are considerate of the needs of others, particularly when those needs involve protecting life. What example did the protesting parents think they were providing for their own children?
Parenthetically, in this particular case, the “inconvenience” of hand-washing is really a boon. Many infectious diseases are transmitted by dirty hands – and judging from the frequency of hand-washing I observe in public restrooms, we have a dirty-hand epidemic in this county. In my opinion, hand-washing instruction should be part of every elementary school curriculum (it is currently also taught to medical and nursing students).
Regarding the serving of peanuts on airplanes, I wonder whether the legislation preventing the Department of Transportation from imposing restrictions on this practice was inserted at the behest of the peanut lobby. The twelve year old legislation required that a peer-reviewed study be completed before the agency impose any regulations. Apparently, the legislation did not include measures to ensure that such a study would actually be conducted.
I am a very strong proponent of conducting prospective experimental studies to guide policy decisions. However, for a passenger with a very severe peanut allergy, one does not need a new study to determine that he/she would be put at risk by other passengers munching on peanuts in the close confines of an airplane cabin. In any case, one is not going to put such an individual at risk in the context of a study. So if such an individual requests a peanut-free flight it certainly would seem reasonable to have the airline comply without requiring any new study.
In order to determine whether all flights should be made peanut-free, one could conduct a study documenting the number and severity of reported peanut allergic reactions that occur during peanut-serving airplane flights. Presumably, individuals with very severe allergies already do not fly on airlines that serve peanuts and thus would not be included in such a survey. Thus regardless of the outcome of such a study, it would seem appropriate that airlines make flights peanut-free upon request of a very sensitive individual.
Peanuts are my favorite airplane snack. However, I would be more than happy to give them up until I reached my destination in order to allow a fellow human being to safely share the same flight.
There are many situations where it is not justified to burden the majority for the benefit of a small minority. However, when the inconvenience to the majority is de minimis and the benefit is the prevention of a truly life-threatening situation for an individual, we should happily bear a peanut-size burden. It is a sign of civilization.