Whenever someone kneads bread dough, cracks open a package of roasted peanut, fries a fish, or tears open a box of powdered milk, he or she can release allergens to the air and make the life of an unsuspecting food allergy sufferer miserable. Although this situation commonly occurs, serious allergy reactions from airborne particles are quite common. A good way in dealing with such situation is to acquire the proper skill for distinguishing between a situation that poses little or no risk and the one that poses a real risk. The risk of getting an airborne reaction varies significantly depending on the level of food protein and other substances in the air. And it depends upon how the food is processed, how close you’re to the food, and the existing air circulation.
It could happen when someone is placing food that contains the dangerous allergen next to the allergic person; for example, chicken cheese sandwich or bread with peanut butter. In this example, the food protein may become airborne and causes some reactions. Although you can smell the cheese or peanut, the scent actually comes from aromatic oils and does not involve protein that causes the allergic reaction. Not enough cheese or peanut protein comes out from the food that can put someone in a real risk, and a mild reaction with this level of exposure are quite rare, even if someone is in close proximity to the allergen source.
This is a step up from the previous level; for example, you are in a confined room or in an airplane cabin where someone next to you tears open a bag of crispy roasted peanuts. In this case, microscopic peanut particles, which contain peanut protein, may quickly become airborne, particularly if the airplane cabin has negative-pressure environment. The risk could further increase because you are very near to the allergen source and the air is re-circulating, it could potentially make matters worse. Severe allergic reactions have occurred inside airplanes seemed to be caused by this situation, but you need to put this risk in perspective:
- Many people with varying degree of peanut allergy symptoms have flown regularly with peanuts that are being served as snacks on board, yet only a negligible number of cases have been reported.
- If the risks of peanut allergy are high and planes were consistently making emergency landings due severe allergic reactions, they certainly would have stopped serving passengers peanuts years ago.
A few larger airlines are no longer serving foods that contain peanuts to address the risks of severe allergy. The movement for going peanut-free is likely due to the public relations reasons rather than to lower the risk of allergy. It’s alright to use peanut-free flights to give yourself peace of mind especially during long flights, but in most cases you shouldn’t delay your travel when a peanut-free flight isn’t available.
Level-three and level-four risks
These levels occur when people or machines are processing allergy-causing foods around you, such as in the peanut shelling process. This obviously causes more problems and greater possibility that peanut protein will saturate the air, especially when the floor is covered with bits of peanut shells and workers are walking around, causing more peanut dust. The important feature that distinguish level three with level four is how close you are with the allergen sources and, more importantly, how good the air circulation is, as shown in these two examples:
- Level-three: You are in the middle of an outdoor peanut processing facility where the wind is blowing at least, gently.
- Level-four: You are in an indoor peanut processing factory, with poor air circulation.
When you are cooking at home, you may have more control over the type of food and how you process it. When you opt to drop in a nearby coffee shop, there could be a higher risk of food allergy, as chefs may cook shellfish, fish, and eggs, particularly on an open stove.
To reduce the risks, take these precautions:
- Steer clear of the kitchen or any cooking area. If you are having dinner where they cook inside the dining area, choose a table that is near the window and the farthest from the commotion of the open kitchen.
- Make sure you have good air circulation. Certainly, you can avoid a restaurant with poor air circulation, but if you are visiting a friend’s house, you may explain your condition and ask him to open the windows or better yet, eat at the backyard.
- Tell everyone about your condition. Often friends are more than happy to adjust their menu if they know your condition.
Remain vigilant of likely exposures from food preparation and cooking. For example, your curious three-year-old with milk allergy could sit at a coffee house while watching servers froth the milk for lattes and has hives erupted on her face due to microscopic milk droplets that land on her skin.