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Nut allergies: How effective is banning the peanut?

Doctor questions Hamilton's proposed ban on selling peanuts

Peanuts

Peanuts can be fatal for some, but banning them has not shown to be effective in preventing allergic reactions, says one doctor.

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Peanut lovers might call it a war on peanuts.

The board of health in Hamilton, Ont., has voted to study the possibility of banning peanuts from all city buildings, including football and hockey stadiums and recreation centres. The legumes are already banned from public schools. 

It's all in the name of preventing allergic reactions — some of which can be potentially fatal.

But how effective would it be? 

"There's not a ton of data to support restrictions," said Dr. Douglas Mack, a local pediatric allergist and adviser to the Canadian Society of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.

'Kids will do fine with a ban being dropped.' — Dr. Douglas Mack

Hamilton officials voted unanimously in favour of studying the measure at a meeting on Monday. This came after a plea from local resident Ian Thompson and his wife Melissa. They have a nine-year-old daughter who is severely allergic to peanuts, which sets limits on where her family can take her.

Thompson told us they were motivated by a Hamilton Tiger-Cats game he attended with his daughter Fiona. He said peanuts were everywhere, with shells blowing through the stadium as football fans ate them and casually tossed the shells.

But Mack has been studying the efficacy of food restrictions in public places and believes the ban may backfire.

"If anything, [a recent Canadian study] shows that the risk my be potentially slightly higher," he said. "Having those restrictions gives a false sense of security."

Best protection

Mack said the data shows that, in schools that have banned peanuts, one per cent of lunches still have peanuts in them. 

So either way, children with peanut allergies need to develop skills to prevent reactions themselves, he said. 

"Kids will do fine with a ban being dropped," he said. "In the rest of the world outside North America, schools don't have this restriction."

"The best protection is knowing how to administer epinephrine," the drug used to treat reactions, "and making sure all public facilities have access it." 

He pointed out that some schools in Quebec are considering lifting their bans.

As for banning the sale of peanuts at the Tiger-Cats' stadium and other public facilities, "there is not enough evidence to support that," Mack said.

He says about half of all allergic reactions happen inside the family's or friends' homes. Only seven per cent of them happen at schools or daycares.

Mack has already contacted the city about his opposition to the ban, and he plans to speak out more if it goes ahead.

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