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Last Updated: Wednesday, 5 May, 2004, 01:15 GMT 02:15 UK
Schools become 'nut-free zones'
By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Online education staff

School meal
Schools have more pupils with food allergies and asthma

Schools are increasingly becoming "nut-free zones" as fears over allergies prompt bans on peanuts in packed lunches.

An allergy expert says almost every school in the country now has at least one pupil with a nut allergy - compared with a generation ago when this would have been a rarity.

As a result, many schools are taking the decision to ban or discourage parents from allowing their children to bring food containing nuts into school.

The number of children developing nut allergies has risen sharply - leaving schools with tough decisions about protecting pupils from potentially fatal exposure to food such as peanuts, walnuts, almonds and Brazil nuts.

Inhalers and injections

As well as banning food with nuts, this has meant that schools, which already have a growing collection of asthma inhalers, also have to look after the adrenaline injections needed by pupils with nut allergies.

This is a 'peanut free' school. In the interests of other children with nut allergies, please do not include peanuts in your child's packed lunch
Example of a Dorset primary school allergy policy

The Anaphylaxis Campaign, which aims to help people with allergies, says there are studies suggesting a threefold increase in the numbers of people with nut allergies since the mid-1990s.

For schools, the greatest fear is that a pupil with such an allergy will suffer an acute, sometimes life-threatening allergic reaction, which can occur within seconds of exposure to nuts.

The campaign's director, David Reading, says that it is believed that there are about six or seven allergy-related deaths among young people each year.

These fatalities tend to be among teenagers, he says, because the diets of younger pupils are much easier to control.

Serious risk

Jonathan Hourihane, a consultant paediatrician and senior lecturer at Southampton University, who has researched in this field, says it remains unclear why there has been such a sudden increase in allergies.

Many schools stop pupils from bringing peanut butter sandwiches

But he says that research in Britain, the US and Canada has clearly demonstrated a steep increase since the mid-1990s.

This suggests that about 1% of all children now have a nut allergy - which would mean that there are likely to be several such allergic children in every average-size school.

These children can have extreme sensitivity to nuts with reports that even opening a jar of peanut butter in the same room could trigger an allergic reaction.

Indirect contact can also cause an allergic response, he says, such as a parent who has eaten nuts then kissing their child goodnight.

Given the serious risk to pupils with allergies, he says that it does not seem excessive to ask parents not to allow their children to bring food to school containing nuts.

But such bans can have "pitfalls", says David Reading of the Anaphylaxis Campaign.

Children also have to learn for themselves how to avoid nuts, he says - because outside school they will face situations where they will need to make such choices.

Unhappy parents

There can also be problems with other parents. Muriel Simmons, chief executive of Allergy UK, says that some parents refuse to co-operate with a peanut ban - saying it's their right to send their children to school with foods containing nuts.

It is regrettable that some schools feel the need to ban nuts from their schools
KP Nuts spokesperson

In such cases, parents with allergic children are encouraged to write to other parents, explaining what will happen if their child is exposed to nuts.

They can also explain how difficult it is to stop food being spread or shared within a school - for example, if a pupil has been eating peanut butter sandwiches and then touches a door handle.

Teachers, facing a more litigious culture, can also be reluctant to take on responsibility for administering the adrenaline injections.

Bob Carstairs of the Secondary Heads' Association says that many teachers are "quite clearly worried" about taking on such medical tasks - and he says that there are law companies deliberately seeking compensation cases surrounding these injections.

United Biscuits, owner of the peanut brand, KP, says: "It is regrettable that some schools feel the need to ban nuts from their schools and we hope that consumers have an opportunity to enjoy KP Nuts at other occasions."

And the company says it is "supportive in clearly labelling where nuts are present at any level as an ingredient in a product".

Sun cream ban

Teachers and parents now face a growing and often confusing checklist of health items that might or might not be allowed in school.

There has been a dispute this week over sun cream - with an eight-year-old boy being banned from bringing it into his Bristol primary school.

The ban was because sun cream was deemed a medication - and as such a potential hazard to other pupils.

Recently teachers were warned by a union that they should apply sun cream to pupils to avoid the risk of litigation over pupils getting sun burn.

Teachers had previously been warned not to apply sun cream to pupils because this could be misinterpreted as an assault.

In another case, schools had been told not to apply sun-tan lotion - in case it caused allergies.

Allergy surge to be investigated
10 Feb 04  |  Health
Anaphylactic shock
08 Feb 03  |  Medical notes

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