Approximately 3.3 million Americans are allergic to nuts, and even more, 6.9 million, are allergic to seafood. However, all told, serious allergic reactions to foods cause just two thousand hospitalizations per year (out of more than thirty million hospitalizations nationwide). And, at most, only 150 people (both children and adults) die each year from food allergies. Compare that to the fifty people who die each year from bee stings, the hundred who die from lightning strikes, and the forty-five thousand who die from motor vehicle accidents. Or compare that to the ten thousand children who are hospitalized each year for traumatic brain injuries acquired during sports, or the two thousand who drown, or the roughly thirteen hundred who die from gun accidents. Yet there are no calls to end athletics. There are likely thousands of parents who rid their cupboards of peanut butter but not guns. And more children assuredly die walking or being driven to school each year than die of nut allergies.
The question is not whether nut allergies exist, or whether they can occasionally be serious, or whether reasonable accommodations should be made for the few children who have documented serious allergies. The question is, what accounts for society’s extreme response to nut allergies? Not surprisingly, the response bears many of the hallmarks of Mass Psychogenic Illness. A few people have clinically documented concerns, but others who do not then copy the behaviors of those who do. Anxiety spreads from person to person to person, and a sense of proportion and the ability to be reassured are lost.