Peanuts go with baseball like hot dogs and beer, but peanuts and Brian Hackman don't mix well. After he ate peanut butter at 17 months, he started vomiting, crying and swelling. His parents rushed him to the hospital and were told he had a life-threatening allergy to peanuts.
Now as an 8-year-old baseball fan, whenever he goes to a ballgame, Brian has to watch out for peanuts as well as foul balls. Fearing that even airborne dust from peanut shells might cause an allergic reaction, his mother, Leslie Hackman, wipes down seats and asks nearby fans to hold off on eating nuts. She calls it "beyond stressful."
Tonight, the Island Lake mother can relax. The Kane County Cougars in Geneva are holding a peanut-free game for people with allergies.
"For once, I don't have to worry," Hackman said. "He'll be in a safe, clean environment, and everyone can just have fun."
As food allergies have become more frequent, airlines aren't the only public places that have eliminated peanuts. Schools, restaurants and even ballparks are slowly becoming more accommodating to people with allergies.
School districts are increasingly developing written plans to spell out how to protect a child with allergies, including keeping certain classrooms and lunch tables peanut-free. Restaurants have begun offering allergy-friendly dinners. And numerous minor league ballparks and the Minnesota Twins offer special peanut-free events. The Chicago Cubs are considering a peanut-free game next year.
It's all in response to an apparent epidemic in food allergies.
Nationwide, the Centers for Disease control estimates 4 to 8 percent of children have food allergies. Each year, an estimated 30,000 people go to hospitals for allergic reactions, and 150 people die.
One study estimated the number of children with peanut allergies doubled from 1997 to 2002. And yet, researchers say it's hard to be sure how much of an increase there's actually been.
While one out of four parents believe their children have allergies, the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network reports only 4 percent actually do. Many children simply have food intolerances that they may outgrow, not true allergies.
Even many of those who've had reactions to skin and blood tests won't always react badly to the food in question. But a severe reaction can be fatal, so parents keep an epinephrine pen ready for a lifesaving injection.
Because of that fear, for some children, tonight's Cougars game will be the first baseball game they've ever attended.
While the peanut-free game brings new fans to the game, it's not a moneymaker, because the team has to stop selling peanut products. That means not only the peanuts, but Cracker Jack, candy bars with peanuts and even ice cream made with peanut oil are all thrown out of the game.
"You'd be surprised," General Manager Jeff Sedivy said, "how many people get upset that we're not selling peanuts."
Still, he added, "I'm trying to make some kids happy. If we win some fans along the way, that's great."
Despite the dangers of venturing into public places, Kellee Konieczny doesn't let that stop her from bringing her 8- and 3-year-old to the ol' ballgame. She asks those around her to lay off the peanuts and tries to explain the danger.
"I explain this is kind of a life-threatening situation," she said. "No matter where you are - a gas station, a park, a theater - you've got to be on your guard. We'd like our sons to be able to enjoy the game like everybody else."