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Going Nuts Over Nut Allergies

I was OK with the school-wide Halloween ban on candy with nuts. I ransacked the shelves at Publix and read the fine print. I even complied with the NO PEANUT BUTTER SANDWICHES lunch rule in my oldest daughter's class last year because we were told a kid might have a severe peanut allergy.

We got the all-clear this school year. The boy isn't allergic to nuts. Still, the no-nut nonsense continues. In fact, we now have a school-wide rule against any nuts. When a teacher politely handed back my "all natural" sugar cookies - along with every other sweet brought in by other moms - last month after the class Christmas party because they were made in a plant where nut products are found, I started to think this nut allergy business was getting, well, a little nutty.

I'm not the only one. Harvard professor Dr. Nicholas Christakis questions the so-called nut precautions that are snowballing into societal paranoia in an essay he wrote last month in the British Medical Journal. He complains about an "overabundance of caution'' and cites an anecdote from his own kid's school, where a bus of 10-year-olds was evacuated after a stray peanut was found on the floor.

For the record, I like nuts. They're part of a healthy diet. And I want my kids to eat them.

I trace the beginning of these absurd nut rules to the case of a 15-year-old Canadian girl with a peanut allergy who allegedly died after kissing her boyfriend who had eaten peanut butter on toast nine hours before. Remember this? It freaked out moms everywhere when it was first reported in November 2005. The suspected cause of death was extreme anaphylactic shock due to a peanut allergy . But what wasn't widely reported was a coroner's ruling months later that the teenage girl actually died from asthma-linked respiratory failure after she attended a party where tobacco and marijuana were being smoked. (Small traces of pot in the girl's blood also implied she had smoked a little herself - not a smart move for an asthmatic.)

I have my own share of food allergies. But, at the risk of sounding hard-shelled, I think it's time we started to use a little more common sense when it comes to protecting the very small number of kids who have nut allergies. Of the roughly 3.3 million Americans who have nut allergies, about 150 die from allergy-related causes each year. Of course, it's never OK for any child to die, but compare that figure to the 50 people who die from bee stings annually. Or the 100 who die after being struck by lightning. Some 45,000 die in car crashes ever year; another 10,000 are hospitalized for traumatic brain injury from playing sports.

If we follow the logic of educators and parents who make schools "nut-free zones" then we shouldn't be putting kids in cars or school buses, and our little dears certainly shouldn't be playing any sports.

It's true that food allergies in children are up. Between 1997 and 2007, the number of kids under 18 who suffered from food allergies jumped 17 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There are a lot of theories about why this is happening. (My favorite is that today's kids are leading an overly hygienic lifestyle so their bodies don't build up proper immunities. In other words, they aren't dirty enough.) The prevailing thought is that more parents are getting their kids tested for allergies and we're seeing an increase in mild cases that in the past went undetected.

Let's take a deep breath. Instead of blanket rules that demonize nuts, we need to come up with a more level-headed strategy. Why not handle this on a case-by-case basis and, if the situation calls for concern, come up with a rule based on the children's age? When it comes to pre-schoolers, who are constantly sharing and putting their hands in their mouths, it does seem logical to keep nuts out if there is a classmate who is severely allergic. But older kids, say ages 8 and up, are certainly wise enough to be told not to share their PB&J sandwich with little Jose because he might have a reaction. Otherwise, the only epidemic I see happening here is our own hysteria.