HIGHWOOD, Ill. -- Even a whiff of peanut butter breath on a fellow student could send 6-year-old Susan Tatelli of Highland Park into an allergic reaction that makes it difficult for her to breathe without emergency medication.
The Oak Terrace School first-grader wears a fanny pack with doses of epinephrine and an inhaler in case she goes into anaphylactic shock from contact with peanuts, which has happened to her before on a plane, in a movie theater and during gymnastics class.
To help protect students like Tatelli, the Illinois State Legislature is considering a bill sponsored by Sen. Susan Garrett, D-Lake Forest, to require school boards to implement plans for managing students with severe food allergies. Food allergies affect about 93,000 school-age children in Illinois.
Under the proposed bill, schools would adopt a policy by January 2010 that includes education and training for school personnel on managing students with life-threatening food allergies, procedures for responding to allergic reactions, and protocols to prevent exposure to food allergens.
This year, Oak Terrace School has asked parents not to give their kids peanut products to help protect nine students in the school who are allergic to peanuts.
A number of Lake County schools have adopted food restrictions in isolated classrooms, "nut-free" cafeteria tables or require that all classroom snacks come pre-packaged with ingredient labels. By banning peanuts in student lunches, Oak Terrace School takes prevention further than most schools.
Oak Terrace has been dealing with peanut allergies for six years, said Principal Sandy Anderson. This is the first time it has implemented a peanut-restriction for all of the elementary school's 535 students.
Oak Terrace students and families are asked not to bring to school loose peanuts, peanut butter sandwiches and granola bars or cookies with obvious peanut content. It doesn't require parents to scan the fine print of ingredients on packages for minute traces of peanuts.
"The parents have a variety of opinions. For the most part there has been wonderful compliance," Anderson said. "The staff are totally in agreement. Many won't eat peanut butter for breakfast because they don't want it on their breath when they come in to school."
The district's preschool program at Green Bay School has adopted a similar restriction.
When Oak Terrace implemented the program at the beginning of the year, it showed parents alternatives to peanut butter, such as soy nut butter in flavors like chocolate, honey crunch and cinnamon sugar.
For Caryn Tatelli, mother of 6-year-old Susan, the peanut-restriction is a chance for her daughter to eat with her peers, go to recess and otherwise interact normally with other students.
"It's a hassle, but a tremendous gift to her," Tatelli said.
Still, Susan takes precautions every day at lunch. She sits at the end of a cafeteria table with a few other students with peanut or tree nut allergies. Susan washes her hands and places a disposable mat down for her lunch. She also doesn't ride the bus because there is no one on the bus who will take the responsibility for injecting epinephrine from an EpiPen if needed.
Susan was diagnosed with a severe peanut allergy when she was 3 years old after she ate a macadamia nut that had been processed on a machine that also processed peanuts. Basically, her body views any trace of peanut protein as toxic, so it mounts a massive defense. Her body produces a lot of mucous in her lungs and her throat swells shut, making it difficult for her to breathe until epinephrine is injected.
"She'll be totally fine one minute and barely breathing the next," Tatelli said. "It happens so fast. It's horrifying as a parent."
Susan recently needed emergency medical assistance while taxiing on a plane that had served peanuts on an earlier flight. There was also the time she was watching "Horton Hears a Who" in a movie theater when airborne traces of peanuts caused her to go into shock. Susan had another allergic reaction after a child ate a peanut-butter sandwich in the car before gymnastics practice and breathed on Susan -- or accidentally wiped residual peanut butter on her.
While Susan was in kindergarten, the peanut ban was applied to her classroom, which is what most elementary schools do when a student has a severe peanut allergy. Tatelli provided the entire class with snacks all year to make sure nothing containing peanuts accidentally entered the classroom. Also, students washed their hands when they entered the room in case they had peanut butter for breakfast.
"It makes me a little tearful to see what these kids do to make my daughter safe," she said.