With the continuous information provided to consumers about the allergen content of their food, why is it that we don’t receive similar information about the allergen content of non-food product? Think about it, the sheets we sleep on, the flooring we walk on, the toys we give our children; all can contain/retain allergens or chemicals that can result in skin and breathing reactions in sensitive individuals, and yet there is no obligation on producers to label this, as for food products. Why not?
Food allergy is a condition that is prevalent on a global scale, in the United States the prevalence of food allergies has increased in excess of 50% since 1997 and now affects 1 in 13 children. Food allergies do predominantly affect young children, but are becoming more common in adolescents and young adults. There are a variety of theories around this increase, prominent of which is our Western diet, and obsession with cleanliness, meaning children are not as exposed to challenges to their immune system early on in life. Whatever the reason, food allergies are not going away, and are only likely to increase.
The majority of food allergies are to a specific set of foods: milk, peanuts, eggs, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish and shellfish. The range of reactions to these foods can range from wheezing, shortness of breath, to dizziness and feeling faint, all the way to a life threatening anaphylactic response. The response of the body to an allergen is based on the body recognising the food as a danger and producing an over-reactive response to it. Depending on who you read, the number of deaths per year from a food related allergic response is somewhere between 11 and 250, and so while the mortality rate is not significantly high, the chronic impact on people’s lives and the health sector can be huge.
Given the prevalence of food allergens, particularly in the Western World, and the reactions that can occur, significant information has been collated, together with public protection policies for consumers and food allergens. In Europe the European Food Safety Authority is responsible for enforcement of food related labelling for informing the consumer of potential allergen content, and in the United States of America, the Food and Drug Administration is responsible for this. In addition, a number of other departments, including Agriculture, Health and Human Services and National Institutes of Health also provide resources for information and advice relating to food allergies.
While there is clearly (and necessarily) a massive state and private sector platform supporting consumers in terms of food products, the same support for avoidance of allergic reactions to non-food consumer products is much more lacking. If your child has an allergy to nuts, you have the labelling information to avoid specific food products; if your child has an allergy to dust mites, it is much more challenging to select appropriate consumer products such as bedding and soft toys. There is a similar challenge around sensitivities to volatile organic compounds (VOCs); these are organic gases that can emit from some consumer products and cause breathing difficulties for those with sensitisations, such as asthma. There is no clear national labelling strategy to inform parents as to the content of these types of products.
There is more and more recognition of this issue, Food Allergy Research and Education (a merger of the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network and the Food Allergy Initiative) recently identified a number of non-food consumer products that had cross over reactions for those with food allergies.
“Recently FARE was notified about a science experiment kit that contained powder used to make fingerprints. A 9-year-old child with a wheat allergy and a history of upper airway reactions received this kit as a gift and after using it, experienced an allergic reaction. His allergist identified the kit as a possible cause of reaction and requested that the product be tested. This powder, the source of which was not identified on the product itself, was tested by the Food Allergy Research & Resource Program (FARRP) at the University of Nebraska and shown to contain a large concentration of gluten. This finding indicates the powder could be composed of wheat flour. For a child with wheat allergy, playing with this toy could lead to a mild or severe allergic reaction.”
Other examples of toys with food allergen cross overs include milk proteins in chalk, and wheat or rice used in microwaveable toys. Toys can also often be culprit for those suffering from dust mite allergies; they are a well-known reservoir of dust mites, and unless the toy can be washed at an appropriate temperature, they can cause significant problems for both the child, and the parents!
Approximately 334 million people are affected by asthma globally and there are approximately 250,000 deaths per year attributed to asthma. As many as half of all asthma sufferers will have an allergy to dust mites which can exacerbate the condition, and you also don’t have to have asthma to be allergic to house dust mites. Other common allergens or triggers within non-food consumer products include VOCs, some textile dyes and other biological materials (eg feathers). That’s potentially a lot of people affected, but there is no state program in place, similar to that for food allergens, to provide consumers with information on products to avoid, or to safely use.
This is the gap that Allergy Standards Ltd was established to address – where a consumer knows that they have an allergy or a sensitivity to a chemical, ASL provide a way for them to select products that are more suitable for them.
The picture of the teddy bear is taken from an on-line gift shop (Cafepress), the idea behind the teddies is that children with severe food allergies can carry them to inform adults of their allergy – interesting to know though if these toys have been tested for VOCs, or their ability to be washed to remove house dust mites?
allergy, asthma, food allergy, nuts, toys, bedding, flooring, VOCs, dust mites,
- US. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- Cafe Press Nut Allergy Alert Teddy Bears
About the Author
Thanks to Dr. Tim Yeomans for this insightful article.
Dr. Tim Yeomans is the Centre Manager for Shannon Applied Biotechnology Centre, a collaboration between two third level colleges in Ireland. Tim holds a PhD in Microbiology and postgraduate qualifications in Technology Commercialisation and Innovation Management. Tim has worked in research and development for 20 years, both in industry and academia. In his role in Shannon ABC, Tim is responsible for the scientific direction of the Centre, intellectual property management and business and technology development.”