Nfld. & Labrador

Pediatrician says kids with peanut allergies are being bullied

Susan Russell says some children in Deer Lake are being teased, chased and even forced to ingest nuts, peanut butter or peanut butter substitutes like Wowbutter while at school.
Wowbutter is made from soybeans, and is touted as a safe, healthy and nutritious substitute for peanut butter. But both products are prohibited in schools in Newfoundland and Labrador that have peanut- and nut-free policies. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

A pediatrician in Deer Lake says some local children with food allergies are being bullied while at school.

Susan Russell said in some cases, nuts, peanut butter and peanut butter substitutes like Wowbutter are being used to harass children with the severe food allergy.

Russell said the bullying can take many forms, from simple teasing, to more serious incidents.

"Children have been threatened with physical harm if they don't touch or ingest the actual peanut. Other children have been chased with the product. And, in some cases, children are forced to eat peanuts or peanut butter, or have them smeared on their bodies," she said.

I don't believe that they understand the significance and the severity of what their actions could be.- Susan Russell

Russell said it's a major risk for these children, which could result in anaphylaxis or death.

She said she has already had several patients at her clinic in Deer Lake who have been bullied since the school year started in September.

"Most recently, we had a child who was chased down the hallway with a sandwich that she was told that contained peanut butter," Russell said. 

"In the end, it was Wowbutter, and of course, she wasn't in any immediate harm. But it's the psychological impact of being pointed with what is essentially a smoking gun for this child, which can cause harm down the road." 

Russell said the bullied child involved in that incident is now afraid to go back to school.

She said school officials were informed about that incident, and that they took appropriate action in punishing the children who did the bullying.

Bullying can cause psychological harm

Russell said many children who have undergone food allergy bullying are often afraid to go back to school and experience academic troubles; have difficulty eating because they don't trust food products; and their social activities decrease because they don't want to go to birthday parties or sporting activities.

She said the bullies are picking on a vulnerability, and an aspect that's different from the rest of the group.

"I don't believe that the children that are doing this want to cause these children to die," Russell said. "I don't believe that they understand the significance and the severity of what their actions could be."

According to studies, Russell said 50 per cent of children with food allergies have experienced bullying at some point; 80 per cent of this bullying occurs in the school; and it's usually by a member of the child's class. In the majority of those cases, she said, children are reporting the food allergy bullying to a parent or school official.

Concerns that kids can't tell the difference

Russell has a three-year-old son with a peanut allergy, and she said he's unable to tell the difference between real peanut butter and the peanut butter substitute known as Wowbutter.

But she's concerned that that will ring true for older children as well.

"The basic premise of the product is that it does in fact taste, smell, and look just like real peanut butter. The fear is that a child will be convinced to consume this product and in fact be consuming actual peanut butter."

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