Should Airlines Ban Peanuts?

The US Department of Transportation is considering banning the nuts from airplanes, or perhaps creating a peanut-free zone on planes, much like there used to be a no smoking area on planes.  Is this a good idea or a bad idea?

How Prevalent are Peanut Allergies

Various sources estimate the percentage of the US population that is allergic to peanuts to range somewhere between 0.4% and 1.0%.

People who are allergic to peanuts experience varying degrees of reaction when encountering peanuts.  Some people can eat peanuts and merely get a runny nose and watery eyes as a result.  Other people suffer more severe reactions, which can be triggered from less and less amount of contact with peanuts.

A small fraction of people can experience severe and life-threatening reactions to peanuts, even by merely inhaling peanut dust from the air around them.

For want of a more accurate number, perhaps one person in 1000 is at risk of a life threatening reaction when they come into minimal contact with peanuts.

So the issue then becomes whether the government should enact a new restriction on airlines and 99.9% of their passengers out of sensitivity to the other 0.1% of passengers?

Why Single Out Only Peanuts

Asthma sufferers can experience severe and even life threatening asthma attacks as a result of encountering various external factors; sometimes including exposure to cologne or perfume.  Somewhere between 6% and 10% of the US suffer from asthma, although (same as peanut sufferers) only a smaller percentage experience extreme reactions.  It is estimated that 100 people die every year (in the US) die from peanut allergies, compared to 4000 people who die every year from asthma attacks.

There are many other irritations and inconveniences that all of us as passengers must accept on flights as well.  The person on one side of us eating and offensively smelly strange type of food.  The person on the other side of us who really should have bought two seats and is taking up much of our space.  The person behind us who took their shoes off.  The person in front of us who is sharing their flatulence noisily with everyone around them.  The person opposite us, coughing their lungs out with influenza or tuberculosis or who knows what.

Who is Responsible for Allergy Sufferers

No-one denies that some people risk a severe reaction if they inadvertently come in contact with peanuts.  But which is more appropriate — should we modify the behavior of 99.9% of the population, or should we ask the 0.1% of affected people to modify their behavior.  A flight attendant posted a telling comment on a USA Today discussion blog on this point.  She said

Ban peanuts?  Oh please,  I’ve yet to see a parent of a peanut allergy kid be prepared to travel with the general public.  This parent will come on board and start demanding that peanuts NOT be served during the flight, and telling us we’ve got to make an announcement “blah blah blah”.  Look, I understand your concern.  But could you first start out with “Hello”?  I will always ask, “Do you have a mask for your child to wear?”  The answer has always been a surprised “NO”.  Me- “Do you have epinephrine or other medication to treat?”  Parent- “Well, no.”  Me- “Do you have Handi-Wipes to wipe down surfaces before your child is seated?” Parent- “Ummm no”.

Listen, I’m willing to work with you on this. But be mindful of your approach, and come prepared. This is PUBLIC transportation.

What do you think?  Feel free to add a comment.

Here is a good general article about peanut allergies, and here is an article that discusses them in medical terms.


10 thoughts on “Should Airlines Ban Peanuts?”

  1. I love peanuts and really miss not having them on a flight. I do n’t think that it is right to take them away from the majority for such a minority. You are correct. It is the responsibility of the Parent to have a mask, wipes, etc. for the child if it is an issue, not the rest of the plane. Bring on the nuts!

  2. I’m not sure the government should regulate this, but your article wasn’t very helpful. The 99.9% vs 0.1% comparison could be applied to other situations as well – if only 0.1% of passengers carry a gun or explosives on board should we allow that since it’s only 0.1%? Asthma and peanut allergy are different in many respects. Preventing fatal reactions to peanuts is simple – no peanuts. Asthma can be triggered by many different exposures – you can’t ban them all! Comparing deaths from peanuts vs asthma is not really relevant. All peanut-related deaths are a direct result of contact with peanuts in some form. Almost all of the 4,000 annual asthma deaths that you cite are due to chronic asthma problems, almost none are due to acute asthma from exposure to a trigger. The quote from the flight attendant is insulting to those of us with loved ones at risk (and, by the way, it’s not just kids, very few people outgrow a peanut allergy). Based on my experience traveling with my peanut-allergic grandson I know that her diatribe isn’t always an accurate portrayal. Using it in your article is inappropriate unless you really think (or better yet, have evidence) that it is really representative of the majority of cases, not just a flight attendant with attitude. For people with high-level peanut sensitivity the measures that she listed are common sense and will reduce risk, but are far from foolproof, the peanut residue is just too difficult to eliminate, especially when it is being constantly replenished by people opening new packages. And I know several people with high-level peanut allergies and all of them have epinephrine with them at all times. All-in-all, your piece didn’t present a serious look at the problem.

  3. Thanks for your comment.
    The problem with reasoning by analogy is that the analogy isn’t always appropriate. In this case, it is stretching things beyond breaking point to compare banning peanuts with banning terrorists/explosives. The former may perhaps threaten 0.1% of passengers, the latter threatens us all.
    I’d also point to your comment ‘you can’t ban them all’ and agree emphatically with you. So why focus on peanuts?

  4. I assume that you’re not saying that if the terrorist only threatens 0.1% of passengers that’s OK?
    Focus on peanuts because it is easy, doesn’t really harm anyone, and may save a life.
    And the impacts aren’t limited to the potential 0.1% that have severe allergies. If a plane has to divert/land due to a severe reaction, not even necessarily a life-threatening one, then 100% of the passengers are impacted, and the financial costs are pretty large.
    We have decided as a society to look out for those with disabilities, thus the ADA requirements. It is only a small percent of the people that are mobility impaired, but we have ramps, special parking, automatic doors, special restroom areas, etc./etc. We also fund development of treatment for people with very rare diseases. We have full-time special education teachers for a single student. All of these things have various impacts to the vast majority of people who don’t benefit from them. Can’t we agree to eliminate peanuts on airplanes in the same spirit of looking after people in the minority – with virtually no impacts on anyone?

  5. You know, Don, it is a bad thing to assume anything. And for sure it would be a very bad thing to in any way infer or assume that I am saying it is okay for terrorists to threaten 0.1% of passengers.
    Question : How many flights a year are currently having to divert and land due to passenger peanut allergic reactions?
    Analogy : Most of the ADA requirements don’t inconvenience normal people. Banning peanuts does. This is another faulty analogy.
    Thought : If we are to start constraining our lives for each and every 0.1% of the population’s special needs, every which way, soon we’ll not be able to get out of bed in the morning (more people die from accidents at home than die of peanut allergies), drive to work (more people die on the roads every day than of peanut allergies every year) and so on and so on, without any limit.
    There have to be compromises and tradeoffs. I’m happy with ‘majority rules’, and maybe even with some sort of minority influence as well. But a 0.1% group mandating to 99.9%? That’s not democracy, that’s dictatorship.

  6. David-
    I assumed that you did NOT think it was OK for terrorists to threaten 0.1% of passengers. Sorry if that wasn’t clear.
    I don’t know the answer to your question about diverting due to allergy problems. Based on several studies (see for an example) problems are certainly non-zero, and no one knows how many are unreported. Another report I saw on ABC news concerned a Brit that had a potentially fatal reaction in a plane that was, fortunately, still on the ground, and was given epinephrine by a doctor who happened to be on board. Since the epi is good only for 10-20 minutes it is of limited use when aloft.
    Fatalities at home or while driving have no relevance to fatalities from peanut allergies. We can’t rank fatalities by cause then set a cutoff below the top 10 or whatever.
    A note on the issue of other allergies such as perfume. I’m not aware of life-threatening (anaphylaxis) from anything other than nuts, mainly peanuts. I don’t think there is really much of a ‘slippery slope’ involved. Since there aren’t any reliable ways to mitigate the problem on board – masks, wipes, buffers, etc. are helpful but only moderately effective – the benefits to the minority (I have usually seen that severe nut allergies affect more nearly 1% of adults and up to 8% of children under 6) seem to me to outweigh the costs to the majority – eating pretzels rather than peanuts for a couple of hours.

  7. There are also many of us who are allergic to dogs and cats. The degreee of reaction varries just like those with peanut allergies. There has been a marked increase in pets traveling in the cabin. The airlines are unsympathetic toward those allergy sufferers.

  8. Dog and cat dander do not cause anaphylaxis or other immediately life threatening reactions to my knowledge. Nut allergies are the only ones I am aware of that can cause death in only a few minutes. Of course, non-life threatening reactions are also traumatic and may have long-term effects. I’m not minimizing any allergic reaction on an airplane, many can be potentially serious and certainly scary when a person is possibly hours away from a hospital.

  9. Update 24 June : The Department of Transportation found out it didn’t have the legal authority to do ban peanuts from planes.
    The peanut ban would have violated a 2000 appropriations act that funds the DOT. The language in the bill specifies that no federal money can be used to ban peanuts or require a peanut buffer-free zone in any air carrier until at least 90 days after Congress and the DOT receive a peer-reviewed scientific study that determines peanut allergy sufferers can get a severe reaction on an airplane.
    The DOT’s original peanut ban proposal on June 8 drew cheers from peanut allergy sufferers but scorn from Georgia’s peanut growers and the politicians who represent them. Georgia is the country’s biggest peanut producer.

  10. Great article. The Peanut Allergy panic is yet another example of frenzy created by the media.
    A peanut allergy is something an individual has to live and cope with–not the other 99% of us.

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