Plane Peanut Ban Debated

in Managing Allergies, Travel & Dining
Published: June 30, 2010

From the archives; published June 2010.

In early June, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) announced it was seeking public input on how to make air travel more accessible to people with severe peanut allergies.

Specifically, DOT said it was considering these options: banning peanuts from being served on flights; banning them from being served when there was a peanut-allergic passenger on board; or requiring a peanut-free zone around a person with severe peanut allergy.

DOT did state at the time that Congress had restricted it from using public funds to limit peanuts on aircraft without a scientific study showing passengers can have severe reactions to peanuts from airborne peanut particles, but the department appeared willing to forge ahead anyway.

However, two weeks later the department said it would comply with this requirement. A DOT spokesman told Allergic Living that the agency will still review all comments received. (See you can comment below).

Does a study exist?

Allergic Living has previously reported on studies showing that allergic individuals are at risk of serious reactions while aboard aircraft. A July 2008 study from the University of California’s Davis School of Medicine looked at allergic reactions aboard airliners among 471 people with severe peanut, nut or seed allergies. Forty-five of these passengers – almost 10 per cent – reported having reactions while in the air, with symptoms such as vomiting, wheezing, hoarseness, hives, diarrhea and light-headedness.

Six people went to an emergency department after landing, including one following a flight diversion for medical attention. Most study participants treated themselves, and in only three cases of severe reactions were the airline crew even made aware of the medical situation in progress.

Then in 2009, a study from the University of Michigan and the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN) found that one in three people who had an allergic reaction to peanuts or tree nuts aboard an airplane suffered anaphylaxis, the most severe form of a reaction.

Despite the findings to date, a spokesperson for DOT told Allergic Living that it has not received a study that would meet the requirements of Congress. However, he also acknowledged that such a study would likely have to be commissioned by DOT and, at this point, the agency has no plans to do so.

Still, the agency wants to hear the public’s views about peanuts being eaten in airplane cabins. The deadline to comment with DOT has been extended to September 23 (see below).

A ray of optimism

Many members of the allergy community have expressed disappointment in the delay of action by the transportation department on the issue of peanuts served on planes. But the allergist who led the University of Michigan study remains optimistic that change is coming.

Dr. Matthew Greenhawt told Allergic Living: “There have now been three studies about this issue over the past 10 years, countless reports from peanut allergic passengers or their families detailing adverse events, and just simply too much circumstantial evidence of a problem for this issue to be ignored further.”

He says it’s critical the scientific community understand that the government must have “further scientific evidence of the scope and nature of the problem before federal funds can be used to implement policy.”

The University of California at Davis, his own research and earlier findings on the issue from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine have laid the groundwork that a problem exists. But Greenhawt says the evidence has to evolve beyond self-reported allergy incidents, a common feature of the work on this issue to date.

“I am confident that one or more investigative groups will step up and deliver further scientific evidence that will hopefully result in a policy that can protect the vulnerable peanut allergic passenger at 35,000 feet,” he says.

And while stipulating the need for greater scientific evidence, DOT does seem genuinely aware of the issues involved for those flying with allergies.

“We asked for public comments because of the significant number of children diagnosed with peanut allergies, some of whom do not fly because of concerns over the serving of peanuts on aircraft,” the DOT spokesman said.

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