With an eye on the food allergy community as a unique group of consumers since 2008, we're on a quest to find and share ways to continue enjoying the good things in life.

02 February 2020

Exposure to Food Allergens in Public

Recently, there has been photo of a NYC subway car circulating along with a story of peanut butter possibly being smeared onto one of the poles passengers use to steady themselves during a subway ride. There is no confirmation of what the substance was, but kudos to Gothamist for posting a story which was sure to get clicks. Remember: clicks=money earned for many websites. Predictably, all kinds of folks with a connection to peanut allergy have shared the photo and the link to the story, leading to much speculation about the smear-er's motives. If you peek at one of the posts encouraging alarm, you will see comments such as "evil", "terrorism", and so on. The attention this photo and story have garnered are a great example of few things that really should be considered conventional wisdom in 2020: 
  1. subways are not clean, and the seats and poles have traces of all kinds of substances, be it food, germs, bodily fluids, etc
  2. when it comes to food allergies, many people have difficulty discerning real risk from perceived
  3. eye-catching stories related to peanut allergy make superb clickbait
  4. based on the number and types of comments this photo and story have generated, there are a lot of people with a lot of free time and apparently little experience riding public transportation
I think it is probably fair to say that for most people, using public transportation does not present a risk in terms of food allergies. My son has life threatening allergies to peanuts and tree nuts, and has experienced an anaphylactic reaction. He has even broken out in hives just from trick-or-treating and transferring packaged candy from a candy dish to his trick-or-treat bag. I mention this to explain that he is fairly sensitive to his allergens. We have ridden on AMTRAK, the MBTA commuter rail around Boston, the "T" (subway) in Boston, tour buses in multiple cities, the subway in New York City, Metro in Washington DC, and have not experienced difficulties in terms of food allergy safety. Anyone suggesting that food allergy safety is a likely problem on public transportation is not sharing accurate information. Rather than question the motives of the smear-er on the NYC subway, perhaps we should be questioning the motives of those who promote unnecessary fear in the food allergy community.

Remember, any time you are out in public, you are bound to touch a surface that has been touched by many other hands--shopping cart handles, door handles, railings, debit/credit card machines at stores, ATM machines, pens attached to chains at the post office and bank, library books, computers at school and the public library, etc. We all go to so many places in public and people aren't having anaphylaxis all over the place. If touching surfaces in public places were truly as risky as some people want you to believe, we all would be witnessing people having anaphylaxis everywhere all the time. That isn't happening! When an alarmist photo and story like this is passed around in food allergy groups and Facebook pages, take a step back and think about whether the author is drawing a reasoned conclusion or reacting out of fear or lack of information. Ask your allergist if you aren't sure about whether something is a real risk or not. There is nothing to be gained and there is no benefit in worrying unnecessarily. 

Remember that old saying--knowledge is power. Don't just take someone's word for it, don't accept strangers' anecdotal stories as fact. Ask your allergist and rely on authoritative resources such as foodallergy.org, kidswithfoodallergies.org, and https://twitter.com/AllergyKidsDoc.

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