Food-Allergic Seventh Grader Dies After Classroom Party

by Bettina Elias Siegel on December 22, 2010

Robin O’Brian, author of The Unhealthy Truth, posted on Facebook today this story from the Chicago Tribune regarding a seventh-grader who suffered a fatal allergic reaction to peanut oil in Chinese food brought in for a class party.

According to the article, another parent of a peanut-allergic child in the class had been told that “a teacher had called the restaurant several times to make sure peanuts would not be used in the food.”   While this parent’s daughter did not have a reaction, the girl in question soon had trouble breathing and later died of anaphylaxis at a nearby hospital.

Clearly more questions than answers are raised by this tragic story.  Should the family have allowed the child to eat the food, regardless of any assurances from the teacher?  Was an epi-pen available?  If not, why not?

And then, of course, there is the larger question of what constitutes appropriate accommodations for food allergic children in schools.  That issue is a controversial one, as we saw here on TLT just last week.  But whatever your thoughts on the subject, it’s clearly a debate worth having:  according to the Chicago Tribune story, the American Academy of Pediatrics says that food allergies now affect approximately 1 in 25 school-aged children.

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Jen December 22, 2010 at 11:06 am

As this story is developing, the family has said publicly that the cause of death was not a reaction due to her peanut allergy. Her mother is a doctor and the parents chose not to have their daughter have an epi-pen at school.

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Renee December 22, 2010 at 2:57 pm

I did just find this link to a FB allergy site:
http://www.facebook.com/FoodAllergyFAAN?v=wall#!/OnespotAllergy
It was posted an hour ago.

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Renee December 22, 2010 at 2:58 pm

That was the wrong link, but I can’t see any way to delete and repost the comment.
Here’s the correct page:
http://www.facebook.com/OnespotAllergy?v=wall

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Jen December 23, 2010 at 8:47 am

This is the local news coverage from the evening of Dec 21.

wgntv.com/news/wgntv-cps-allergy-death-dec20,0,3664314.story

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Karen December 22, 2010 at 11:33 am

Not to belittle the magnitude of a child dying due to food allergies, I want to add to the discussion of nut-free zones and non-allergic kids. Our school went nut free a couple of years ago, and I was very put out because my picky eater had exactly one thing on her list of what I could pack in her lunch bag: PB & honey. With that off the table, so to speak, I was in a bind.

A teacher suggested that we switch breakfast & lunch – brilliant! So now about once a week my picky eater has PB & honey for breakfast, and cereal & milk for lunch. The rest of her packed lunches are butter sandwich w/cheese stick. She’s slowly adding foods to her ok list, but we’ve managed to get by w/o bring peanut butter to school. A couple of weeks ago she ate soy butter…oh, so exciting.

A girl we know went to sleep-away camp this summer for the first time at age 12 – she has severe food allergies and her parents wanted to wait until they felt she was capable of managing it I guess. Even so, she ended up in the ER & ICU after a mistake made by the camp staff.

I hope that the science of food allergies can advance more quickly so we can prevent this in our kids. Fewer processed foods w/peanuts? More restricted eating during pregnancy & breastfeeding?

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Lisa December 22, 2010 at 11:50 am

No, the family should not have allowed the child to eat the chinese food. Asian food is ALWAYS a no, no for peanut allergic kids. But that is not the question at hand.

Unfortunately those of us with food allergic kids are subject to the discretion of parents, teachers and family members who make food choices for us and deem them safe without consulting the parent. It’s very confusing for a child, no matter what the age, when a trusting adult tells them that the food being served is “safe.” And kids are sensitive to hurting an adult’s feelings when they are told that extra efforts have made on their behalf — so they eat what’s put in front of them instead of saying “no, thank you.”

It’s natural to inquire about the availability of an epi-pen or whether or not the parents should have allowed the child to eat the chinese food in the first place. Truthfully, an epi-pen is only as effective as the person trained to administer it…and the injection only buys about eight minutes of “breathing room” before intensive medical intervention is required. And according to reports I’ve read, there is no evidence that the teacher ever consulted the allergic child’s parents before ordering the chinese food. Tragically, these parents may not have been aware that the food was being served that day at all.

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Bri December 22, 2010 at 1:11 pm

There are too many things going through my head right now, and I don’t know how to sort them out to be able to respond to 1) this sad, tragic story; and 2) the whole larger issue of where cultural sensitivity to the undeniably difficult problem of food allergies begins and ends. So I’m not going to try. But I do have a note for you, Karen — have you tried sunflower butter? We find it MUCH more palatable than soy butter and much closer in flavor to actual PB. It’s saved many a lunch at our little one’s nut-free school.

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Renee December 22, 2010 at 2:39 pm

I would recommend Sunbutter too! Much better than soy butter.

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Elizabeth, blogger for SunButter January 1, 2011 at 11:20 am

Thanks for the mention amidst this horrible tragedy.

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Elizabeth December 22, 2010 at 1:16 pm

Let me throw this in to the peanut-free schools debate. I am a fourth-grade teacher and the parent of a child with severe food allergies. A couple of years ago, said child had an anaphylatic reaction at an ice cream party held at after-school. He thought they were M&Ms; they were Reese’s Pieces. After the dust settled, our principal (for both of us – he went to my school) asked what I thought about making the school peanut-free.

In truth, I think two things. One, Reese’s Cups and PB&J aren’t going to be banned from his office when he grows up. They aren’t banned in movie theatres, etc. now. He needs to learn to protect himself, and if we always do it for him, he won’t. He’s the one who put the candy in his mouth without knowing exactly what it was. It’s no different from running into the street without looking.

Two, if our school had banned everything that made AJ extremely ill when he started kindergarten, nobody would have been able to eat. At five, milk, egg, wheat, and beef products produced a similar reaction in him. I’m talking contact reactions; he didn’t have to actually eat it to react. (Thankfully, now he’s down to just peanuts, tree nuts, and shellfish.) At what point does the good of the individual become more important than the good of everyone?

A parent has the responsibility to teach an allergic child how to protect him or herself (Restaraunts have ingredients sheets available, but you have to ask for them. A well-trained seventh-grader should be able to read one.) and to provide intervention meds. if there’s a need. I think allergic kids need to be able to navigate the world of food with the confidence that knowledge and preparation for an emergency bring. (Such as an unknown allergen, which it seems, may have been the case?)

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Viki December 22, 2010 at 8:54 pm

Bettina, you knew I couldn’t leave this one alone.

As the mother of a peanut & soy allergy child who is now an adult I have to say I AGREE with Elizabeth whole heartedly. We spent a lot of time teaching our daugher to be responsible for what she put in her mouth, to be aware of who she was sitting next to and what they were eating, to read labels, to not eat a food if she wasn’t 100% sure. ( That said middle school was scary because of peer pressure)

It was our job to make sure that every teacher she came in contact with was AWARE of the severity of her allergies (peanuts and soy) and that they were Trained in how to use the epi-pens that were available to them. There were 3 in the school. 1 in the main office, one with the team leader, and one in the special areas (Library was central so it was kept there). Before the district took over the training my husband who is a critical care RN would train the teachers himself with a training epi-pen.

With both peanut and soy our daughter still does not eat oriental food. Why risk it. Woks and cooktops are seldom cleaned completely between dishes at such a place, cross contamination is quite possible.

No matter What caused this child to have this reaction, several balls were dropped. The child, parents,teacher and school were not prepared. There was no plan in place and there should have been.
It is still a very sad sad event. My daughter will be livid that there was no plan in place.

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Renee December 22, 2010 at 2:51 pm

I can’t find the update Jen is talking about, but it does seem odd that one peanut-allergic child would have such a strong reaction and the other not at all –especially to oil, since it would be throughout the dish. Asian food in general is definitely out for peanut/tree-nut allergic people. I can’t imagine how a parent of an allergic teen would have allowed her to eat Chinese food, but perhaps it wasn’t actually the parent’s decision.

I remember a few years ago when a teen girl was thought to have died because of a reaction to peanuts after kissing her boyfriend, but it turned out she had an undiagnosed heart problem.

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sherry December 31, 2010 at 7:46 pm

Its actually not as odd as you think. Peanut oil’s chemical composition is changed somewhat by cooking, for instance, I can eat food from the Chik-Fil-A chain which is cooked in peanut oil with no reaction or problem at all. Give me something with a smidgen of peanut butter in it, and I am racing the clock against anaphalaxis, Epi-pen or not.

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