COHASSET, MASS. >> Every day, it seems, we hear about the problem of food allergies. For many, this sounds like the latest issue brought up by overly concerned helicopter parents. The reality, however, is quite the opposite. For 15 million Americans — including 270,000 Massachusetts residents, 100,000 of whom are our children — food allergies are incredibly dangerous and potentially life-threatening.
My wife and I have five wonderful children, three of whom happen to have severe food allergies. To live with food allergies is to be constantly on guard for potential exposure to your allergen, be it peanuts, dairy, wheat, soy, or even obscure allergens like chocolate, garlic, basil, or peppers.
The greatest fear is that exposure will lead to anaphylaxis, a deadly response in which an individual's airways constrict, potentially closing altogether within minutes. It's terrifying to watch.
Fortunately, there is a medication that can slow the effects of anaphylaxis called epinephrine, allowing time for medical treatment to arrive. Most individuals with food allergies know that they need to keep two epinephrine auto-injectors with them at all times, regardless of the situation, to save their own lives should an unexpected anaphylactic event occur.
Unfortunately, regardless of how diligent one is, mistakes happen and epinephrine can be misplaced, left behind, or hard to find during a crisis situation.
That's why it's critical that a bill pending at the State House (SB 1220) be passed immediately. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Karen Spilka, would allow — but not require — public locations like sports arenas, malls, theme parks, restaurants, and other businesses to carry epinephrine in case of an emergency. And so long as individuals administering the epinephrine have been trained, the bill specifies that they will not be held liable for their actions, regardless of the outcome. This is a win-win situation — a potential lifeline for food-allergic individuals with no undue burden on our businesses.
It's true that the onus to carry epinephrine is squarely on the food-allergic individual and family, but there are other reasons we should all support this bill. It's estimated that 20-25 percent of reactions in schools happen to children previously undiagnosed. Many schools carry epinephrine as a precaution, but that same danger exists for children in public places.
In addition, while food allergies in children get most of the attention, there is also a surge in "adult onset" food allergies taking place. In these situations, individuals such as you or I suddenly develop an anaphylactic reaction to a food we've eaten our whole lives! In fact, one seafood restaurant owner told me about 10 cases that occurred in his restaurant alone last year — all to long-time regular customers.
The bottom line is that, while we don't know the cause of food allergies, anaphylaxis has become prevalent across the country (one ER visit every 6 minutes due to anaphylaxis) and the prudent action is to allow public locations to carry the relatively benign medication that can stop anaphylaxis before it becomes deadly.
States signing on
Twenty-nine states have passed laws similar to SB 1220, with our neighbor, New Hampshire, being one of the latest. Ten states this year alone have passed laws.
Massachusetts lawmakers have proven their commitment to those with food allergies in the past and should do so again with this bill that gives businesses an opportunity to provide a safety net to their customers without the burden of a mandate. SB 1220 has the potential to save lives and I look forward to that acknowledgement by our lawmakers.
Paul Antico is Founder and CEO of AllergyEats. He's also a board member of the Asthma & Allergy Foundation of America.