After announcing this season’s schedule of peanut allergy-friendly events, the Kansas City Royals saw several sell out, and the team soon added another to keep up with demand.
The announcement came after a campaign from some local fans, and it followed a growing trend of baseball teams working to be more accommodating to fans with allergies.
Despite what some call an allergy epidemic, the medical community is still trying to grasp why peanut allergies seem to be increasing among kids. Meanwhile, many fans scoff at the idea of separating the national pastime from its signature snack.
Ten-year-old Weston Miller, a fourth grader who plays catcher for his Little League team in Knob Knoster, Mo., says baseball is his favorite sport. But attending Royals games – or any major sporting event – has been difficult for him and his parents, Janna and Eric Miller.
“I am allergic to peanuts and tree nuts, and that’s very severe, and I could die from that,” Weston says.
In early spring of this year, Janna Miller decided she wanted to take her son’s favorite sport beyond the Little League field.
She started a Facebook group, Kansas City Royals Fans for Peanut Free Baseball Games, to encourage the Royals to create allergy-friendly events. That meant setting aside a private seating area that would be free of peanuts and food containing them.
Miller says she’s even willing to sing during the seventh inning stretch.
“We’ll still sing the song, but it doesn’t mean that we’re going to be eating peanuts,” she says.
Miller’s local campaign is part of a national grassroots movement comprised mostly of parents like her and a blogger who identifies herself only as Jennifer B, a Boston mother whose son is allergic to peanuts.
On her website, peanutfreebaseball.com, Jennifer B dispenses information on food allergy-friendly sports events and rallies supporters to contact local teams.
When she started in 2008, some teams already offered the events, but most didn’t. She says a lot of teams she initially contacted were sympathetic but stopped short of making accommodations. All of them offered the same reason: liability.
She says team after team expressed concern about the possibility of accidental allergic reactions leading to lawsuits.
“They say ‘We can’t assure them that there’s not going to be some stray peanut shell that’s going to come near them,” Jennifer B says.
Since starting her work, however, many major league teams – including the Yankees, Mets and White Sox – and minor league teams have made allergy accommodations, getting around the liability issue by requiring a waiver.
Jennifer B’s home team – the Red Sox – has had allergy-friendly events for several years, but she admits she hasn’t actually been to one.
“To be honest with you, my son has turned out not to be that big a baseball fan as the rest of the family,” Jennifer B says.
The million-dollar question
A lot of her work involves answering questions from both parents and baseball teams about severe peanut allergies. And there are plenty of them, including the big one: Why are increasing numbers of people allergic to peanuts?
“Yeah, that’s the million dollar question,” says Dr. Chitra Dinakar, a pediatric allergist at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City.
No one knows for sure what causes peanut allergies, but one theory points to the age that children are exposed to peanuts and another theory to exposure to soy products.
One of the most popular theories is the hygiene hypothesis.
“When the environment is too clean, as in Western countries, then the immune system starts barking at shadows and considers things that are not scary to be scary,” Dinakar says.
Supporters of this theory point to the Amish, who raise their children among hay, dirt and animals. They also drink raw milk and have some of the lowest rates of allergies in the Western world.
Dinakar explains that the immune systems of allergic people react to peanuts as something harmful. When exposed to them, their bodies flood with histamine.
“It makes you itch and sneeze and throw up,” Dinakar says. “You sometimes have diarrhea, but it can go on to more severe reactions like wheezing, bronchial constriction. You can’t breathe. You start coughing, and then your blood pressure drops and you pass out and, God forbid, it can result in death.”
Even among allergists, estimates of the number of kids affected range widely. Some say as many as one in twelve children are allergic to peanuts, with 40 percent of those allergies being severe.
Allergists agree that the prevalence of peanut allergies is increasing, but it still afflicts just a small percentage of the population. Jennifer B says she’s heard from many in the peanut gallery who wonder why baseball teams should make special accommodations for such a small group.
A 2012 commentary by Fraser Steitel on Fox News’ Studio B with Shepard Smith was one notable example. He called the introduction of allergy-friendly events “heretical.”
Dinakar says she’s seen many patients and parents overreact to an allergy diagnosis, and she understands the skepticism many harbor about peanut allergies.
But she believes making accommodations, especially for children, is important to help ease the paralyzing fear that often accompanies peanut allergies.
“You’re supposed to be able to eat food, right? As a human being. To think that a normal food that everybody else eats and enjoys is a threat to your life, I think that’s the part that is sort of a quagmire,” Dinakar says.
Not long after Janna Miller launched her campaign, the Royals announced they would offer allergy-friendly events this season.
Anthony Mozzicato, the Royals’ director of guest experience, said the team had previously offered allergy-friendly events but had discontinued them due to lack of interest.
This season is different. The team has been inundated with requests for the events.
“We want to be able to help those individuals, whether it’s a child or an adult, have an opportunity to watch baseball games,” Mozzicato says.
According to Jennifer B, all but eight major league teams – the Angels, Astros, Athletics, Cubs, Dodgers, Marlins, Rangers and Rays - now offer allergy-friendly events.
At the Royal’s first allergy-friendly event of the season, five families turned out to watch the home team play the Astros from inside a sanitized and air-conditioned suite.
A registered nurse from the University of Kansas Hospital stood by with Benadryl and EpiPens, which are used to counteract severe reactions.
Many of the younger fans’ attention faded after a few innings, but that wasn’t the case for 15-year-old Antonio Franco, who was awed. It was his first time at a baseball stadium.
“I just never really expected anything like this,” he says. “I just never though that a club or team would do this, which I found really nice.”