February 9th, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

"I read that as 'food, food, food, and food.'"

I was making up a pan of egg noodles in chicken gravy for dinner the other night, and on the back of the package was the following new mandatory warning, in big bold letters: "Warning: Contains eggs, wheat, soybeans, and milk." I'd heard about the new labels, but somehow having one of the new labels in my hand finally got through to me (especially with a coversation with a friend the same day in which her food allergies came up). Because all I could think when I looked at it was I read that as "Warning: Contains food, food, food, and food."

Those are products that human beings have eaten ever since the invention of agriculture, twenty five thousand years ago. These are plants that we co-evolved with, they're as natural a part of human ecology as air and sunlight. As recently as my childhood, a comparatively recent 40 years ago, food allergies were so rare that hardly anybody had heard of them. And now, suddenly, we're surrounded by a substantial percentage of people who can go into severe anaphylactic shock if they even smell peanuts, wheat gluten, eggs, butter, milk, or common beans like peanuts and soybeans?

When I was a kid, one of the things we all "knew" was that allergies were something you were born with, some kind of weird birth defect that couldn't be diagnosed until some time later in childhood. But birth defects don't follow a growth curve that explosive, not even if the environment favored it. That's just not how evolutionary biology works; human generational cycles aren't that short.

All I know is that this is turning into a public health crisis. We may be approaching the point where food-related anaphylactic shock kills more people in the US than HIV. So it's about damned time that our epidemiologists get serious about tracing the causes of this disease and how it's spread, what pathogen causes it and how to combat that pathogen. Because this is rapidly becoming too big a problem to ignore.

Don't bother me with the "too clean = bubble boy syndrome" theory; food allergies also occur in the filthiest inner city neighborhoods you know, and there they blame it on cockroaches. Don't blame environmental chemical toxins unless you know of a specific one that I don't that breaks the curve, because levels of environmental toxic chemical contamination, of both the air and the water and our homes, has declined steadily over the last hundred years. At this point, I'm starting to suspect prions, if only because they're an infectious agent that we're still mostly unable to screen for. There may be a genetic or environmental susceptibility or trigger, but I know enough mathematical epidemiology to recognize an epidemic when I see one.
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