If Riker VanArsdall were to eat food that contained tree nuts while he was at school, a medical device that could save his life is nearby in the nurse’s office.
Now, the Florida Legislature is considering a bill that would require schools across the state to stock such medication and have it available should any child – and not just the ones whose parents know they have medical issues – have a potentially deadly allergic reaction.
House Bill 369 would mandate that districts stock doses of epinephrine – more commonly known as EpiPens – at schools. It would allow a school nurse or other designated person at the school to administer a lifesaving dose of the medicine to any student who might be having a reaction.
Currently, state law allows such injections only for those students who have a prescription; their own EpiPen must be used.
“This bill can potentially save lives,” said John L. Lehr, chief executive officer of Food Allergy Research and Education, based in McLean, Va. “When someone has a reaction, every second counts.”
Riker’s father, Rick, knows that all too well.
Nearly 13 years ago in Orlando, his wife – who was also allergic to tree nuts – ate a roll she didn’t realize had walnut paste on it. Terrell VanArsdall died from an allergic reaction.
Riker, who is 12 and in the seventh grade at Rampello Downtown Partnership School, knows that help is always a short distance away.
“He knows if he accidentally eats something, he probably won’t die like his mom,” the father said.
Experts estimate that one in 13 children in the United States has some kind of food allergy. Studies have shown that nearly one-fourth of first-time reactions occur in schools.
“This means that many children who experience a food allergy reaction in school may not know that they have an allergy,” Lehr said, “and therefore may not have epinephrine auto-injectors prescribed to them.
“Having stock epinephrine is very important and can be the difference between life and death.”
Alfred Aleguas, managing director of the Florida Poison Information Network in Tampa, agrees. Aleguas supports the bill, which has gotten favorable committee reviews but has not yet come up for a floor vote.
“I think it’s a good thing,” he said. “If used properly and used with the right kid, they can be lifesaving.”
With many food allergies, reactions can be swift and intense. A person’s blood pressure can drop, the airways tighten.
Aleguas knows the issues firsthand, as well.
One time, he ate some pasta salad at a party. What he didn’t know at the time was there was lobster in it.
Because he’s allergic to shellfish, he had a reaction to it. But he always carries a dose of epinephrine with him.
Soon, students across Florida and in other states may have the same access.
More than two dozen states are considering similar bills. One just passed the Legislature in Tennessee; another is under review in Washington state.
Fifteen states already have a law or guidelines that allow or require schools to stock epinephrine, Lehr said.
An estimated 8 percent of children in the U.S. have food allergies, or 5.9 million of them, according to a 2011 report from Northwestern University in Chicago. The most common food allergens are peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, wheat and soy.
There have been food-allergy deaths in Illinois and Virginia, Lehr said, and those states now have laws on the books where schools must stock EpiPens.
“We don’t want to wait for another child to die before we enact more laws,” Lehr said.