White Coat, Black Art

Allergy bullying: It's real, and it's dangerous

Kids with life-threatening allergies have a tough time navigating school and activities to keep themselves safe. But they also face the added burden of "allergy bullying”—from the movie Peter Rabbit to stand-up comics who poke fun at allergies, to their own peers.
Lisa Buckley and her daughter, River, 8, who has a life-threatening allergy to peanuts and tree nuts. Lisa says the kid's movie Peter Rabbit is insensitive to people with allergies. (Chilwin Cheng )
Listen to the full episode26:29

[Originally published on April 21, 2018]

Anaphylaxis is a life-threatening medical condition with no cure; so how come the people who have it are frequently the butt of jokes and victim of bullies?

It's a question that Lisa Buckley asks herself a lot.

Her daughter, River Cheng is eight, and exposure to a peanut or tree nut could kill her.

River Cheng, 8, has a severe peanut and tree nut allergy and must carry an EpiPen with her at all times. (Chilwin Cheng)

"It's terrifying. It's hard to describe the intensity when your child goes through something like that," Buckley said, recalling River's "worst" allergic reaction.

"Her entire body broke out in an extremely painful rash, just itching, screaming, vomiting, and then she finally passed out," Buckley told Dr. Brian Goldman, host of White Coat, Black Art.

At the time, River was five, and they were in an allergist's office doing a "food challenge" to test River's sensitivity, so they had access to immediate treatment.

"I really did freak out," River said, recalling the incident. "I remember just going nuts, and I was crying and itching, and it really, really stunk."

River is one of 2.5 million Canadians who have an allergy.

The severity of her allergy means her family has to read every ingredient on food labels and constantly wipe down spaces where River eats. They keep their home free of peanuts and tree nuts, and ensure that everyone in River's circle understands the seriousness of her allergy. 

River Cheng, 8, cooks lunch with her dad Chilwin, in their Vancouver home. River has a severe peanut allergy which means her home is nut-free. (Lisa Buckley )

The other half of the battle is combating false information and hurtful jokes about allergies.

"It's problematic the way that television portrays certain types of illness," Buckley said.  

"Some illnesses we elevate and say the people who are dealing with them are very heroic, and others we make the butt of jokes and we dehumanize them."

Movies are guilty too. The 2018 children's movie Peter Rabbit is the latest case in point.

One scene in particular has been called out for "allergy bullying."

"They make it very clear that they deliberately expose Thomas McGregor, who is the farmer's nephew, to his allergen — in this case blackberries," said Buckley, who saw the movie in March, after writing to White Coat, Black Art to call out the film's insensitivity.

In the movie, Peter Rabbit and his friends are on a mission to raid the garden, and use a slingshot to pelt the character with blackberries, aiming for his mouth. 

When he ingests one, he uses an epinephrine autoinjector, or an EpiPen after he goes into anaphylactic shock.

To make matters worse, he uses the pen incorrectly, Buckley said.

"He injects himself in the wrong place. He collapses like he's died and and gets up again."

The reality of anaphylaxis is far different, said River.  

"You have to get emergency medical attention," she said, adding an attack would mean a trip to the hospital.

River, 8, describes her allergic reaction, and how she uses her EpiPen 1:12

Food Allergy Canada was so concerned about the scene, executive director Jennifer Gerdts wrote to Sony Pictures to complain in February, as did similar organizations in the U.S.

"We said it's nice you've come out with an apology, but that's not enough," said Gerdts, who has two teenage boys with nut allergies.

"They really missed the mark here. Especially in a kid's movie. They should treat it like a medical condition."

Why would you poke fun at a medical condition? You wouldn't poke fun at cancer.- Jennifer Gerdts. executive director of Food Allergy Canada

Sony Pictures and the filmmakers did issue an apology saying "food allergies are a serious issue" and the film "should not have made light" of a character being allergic to blackberries.

Jennifer Gerdts, executive director of Food Allergy Canada says the new Peter Rabbit movie is insensitive to those with life-threatening allergies. (Jenna Muirhead)

​Both Gerdts and Buckley said the apology did little to address the bullying which happens throughout the film.

"The rabbits make all kinds of comments like, 'Don't use it as a crutch!' and 'How come everyone has allergies these days?'" Buckley said. 

"I think that if they really wanted to make amends they should donate half the proceeds from the film to allergy research," she added. 

But Peter Rabbit is far from the only offender.

Comedian Ricky Gervais takes a shot at people with peanut allergies in his stand-up act in which he says, "If being near a nut can kill you, do we really want that in the gene pool?" 

More recently,  the rebooted ABC-TV series Roseanne  made light of peanut allergies when Roseanne's grandson says he's not worried about being picked on by a kid at school because he has a peanut allergy.

"I could take him out with a bag of trail mix," he explains as the audience breaks into laughter.  

Buckley said she's aware many people will see her as a "humourless allergy mum" for calling out jokes, but she has science on her side.

Studies have shown that allergy bullying is a real and dangerous

Dr. Edmond Chan, head of B.C.'s Allergy Clinic at B.C.'s Children's Hospital, has researched the phenomenon.

Dr. Edmond Chan is the head of the Allergy Clinic at B.C.'s Children's Hospital. (BC Children's Hospital )

He and his colleagues did a study involving more than 100 children.

He says 20 per cent of participants reported being bullied. Among those 20 per cent who were bullied, 90 per cent reported non-physical acts and 59 per cent reported physical acts.

"Ten children reported being purposely touched by the food they were allergic to, or having it waved in front of their face," he said.

"One was even forced to eat what they were allergic to," he added. 

Chan said they found that fear of bullying resulted in some children not wearing medical alert bracelets because they feared it would make them a target. 

"It's very concerning. The purpose of the medical ID is purely for safety," Dr. Chan said.

He says kids should not be afraid to speak up when they encounter bullying over allergies.

That is something Arianne Kirkey, 28, has learned the hard way.

Arianne Kirkey, 28, of Ottawa has a severe allergy to peanuts, tree nuts, sesame and sunflower seeds and freshwater fish. (Provided by Arianne Kirkey )

Kirkey is allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, freshwater fish, sesame and sunflower seeds. She grew up in a small town where she was often singled out over her allergies.

"I was the only kid with a food allergy, everybody knew who I was, what my allergies were and that I was the reason they couldn't have peanut butter cups or Reese's Pieces in class," said Kirkey, who now lives in Ottawa.

Classmates questioned whether her allergy was real and teased her by waving her allergen in front of her face.

It still hurts to think about it. You don't ask for a food allergy.- Arianne Kirkey, 28 who was bullied as a child because of her food allergies. 

And while she's learned to advocate for herself, she still runs into issues as an adult.

A few years ago she was on a flight, and a woman sitting near her repeatedly tried to order items with nuts even after she was told that someone sitting in her section of the plane had a life-threatening allergy.

Kirkey has seen instances of online bullying, with commenters suggesting that people with peanut allergies "should just stay home" and not fly.

That led her to write a blog for Food Allergy Canada about how to respond to online bullies

For her part, Lisa Buckley says anyone writing about food allergies or putting them on screen needs to put themselves in the shoes of those who suffer from them, and their families.

River Cheng and her brother Kai (Red Alchemy Photographic Arts )
If they'd ever stop to talk to one of the families whose arms are empty, who have had someone who will never come home because they've died of anaphylaxis, it gets harder to put these kind of dehumanizing scenes and use them for comedy.- Lisa Buckley