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UNDER SIEGE FOR PEOPLE WITH SEVERE FOOD ALLERGIES, THE WORLD'S A THREATENING PLACE

Just as any caring parents would, Mark and Marilee LoPresti want the best for their son, Vincent, 3. But they have a harder fight than most because of his severe food allergies.

The LoPrestis are so concerned that they recently asked that all peanut products be banned in the Grand Island school he will attend. For Vincent, even the smell of peanut products can cause problems. His parents' request drew wide-ranging community reaction when the story appeared in The News. After all, banning peanut butter sandwiches, peanut butter cookies and any food with peanuts in an elementary school would hardly go unnoticed.

Vincent isn't alone in his unusual battle with food.

Jennifer Valvo of Cheektowaga recounts taking her son Austin, 2 1/2 , to a mall when he was 1.

"I packed a peanut butter sandwich for him," she said. "He just touched it to his face and it got all swollen and he broke out in hives."

To Austin's list of allergens, which already included eggs and milk, she added peanuts.

What happens to Austin and others with food allergies is that the body misinterprets certain foods as harmful invaders and releases histamines and other chemicals that cause distressing, even fatal results.

Allergic reactions to food kill more people (125) each year than reactions to insect stings (50), says Anne Munoz, who founded the Food Allergy Network in Alexandria, Va., in 1991.

Eight foods -- milk, eggs, wheat, peanut butter, soy, tree nuts, fish and shellfish -- contribute to 90 percent of the reactions, with peanuts, nuts, fish and shellfish often lifelong offenders.

Lifelong may be a key word here, for while Vincent LoPresti's parents argue for a peanut ban in his elementary school, there likely will be many battles ahead as he and his family try to keep him safe.

How do people with severe food allergies navigate a potentially threatening world?

In Austin's case, it takes careful monitoring -- scoping out food at parties, reading labels -- to avoid serious episodes.

"If someone wants to give him candy or cookies, he'll see me reading the package and he'll say 'No peanuts, Mommy?' " said Mrs. Valvo.

What has helped Martha Kavanaugh, 31, who is allergic to sesame seeds, is developing "sesame seed radar."

It's easy to understand why she's so cautious.

As a child she ate a piece of coffee cake that a neighbor had sent over before she went to her uncle's funeral. "By the time I got to the funeral home, my face swelled up and my mouth blew up and nausea kicked in," she said. "So we ended up having quite a situation."

Once, in Spain, she accidentally ate something with sesame seeds.

"I ended up in a hospital in Barcelona," said Ms. Kavanaugh, who grew up in South Buffalo and is a graduate of the London School of Economics. "My poor friend thought I was going to die."

Ms. Kavanaugh always asks bagel shop employees to wipe down the counter before they prepare her bagel so she doesn't pick up a stray seed.

Still, nothing they do is foolproof, allergy sufferers say.

Sometimes, formerly "safe" products become dangerous because manufacturers change ingredients. Or producers make a candy bar, say, with nuts and then don't clean the equipment thoroughly, leaving a residue that gets into the next run.

Or allergens are hidden under the term "other natural ingredients" in the labeling. Besides that, they show up in unexpected places. Ground peanut shells, for one, are used in wallboard, and when it's cut or sanded they can become airborne irritants.

Parties, delis and restaurants are potential disasters.

"Chefs always pride themselves on being creative with common ingredients," Ms. Munoz said, "and that's where you'll have lots of surprises. We've found peanut butter in brown gravy and crushed nuts in pie crusts."

Michael Johnson, 40, who's allergic to several foods, has become an incessant label reader, but even that doesn't always help, he said.

For instance, some brands of tuna are packed in a vegetable broth that contains peas, an allergen for him.

"I call companies and ask questions and sometimes the response is, 'Why do you want to know?' " he said. "Nobody wants to give away trade secrets."

But he also has encountered companies that are sympathetic and willingly disclose ingredients.

When he shops, he has one rule of thumb: "I won't eat anything with more than 14 letters."

And he tries to stick with the tried and true.

One morning, however, he quickly grabbed a breakfast bar on his way to work. Someone had changed the location of his familiar choice and he accidentally got one that contained peanut butter.

Fortunately, it was a morning when Johnson, a communications technician for Ferguson Electric, was working at a hospital.

"I was in a severe attack and an employee wheeled me into the ER," Johnson said. "The doctor thought it was a reaction to the weather, because it was 15 below that day. Even today all doctors don't realize that you can run into severe respiratory distress from this."

Johnson said he has become acclimated to living with the condition.

"Literally from the moment I was born, I've had this," he said. "I know I have a responsibility to maintain my health as best I can. I've coped with it all my life. It doesn't stop me from doing anything."

Denise Greene, 21, of Andover in Allegany County, remembers not being able to put her shoes on and having her eyes swell shut when she was a child.

To protect herself, she always took her lunch to school and "I read everything."

Still, one time she ate a piece of candy that had peanuts in it.

"They had to call for an ambulance, and I got shots because my throat was swelling up," she said. "I have to question everything, so we kind of stick to McDonald's because I know what's OK for me there."

Besides avoiding the foods that make them sick, those with allergies spend a fair amount of time explaining to others why they have to be so careful about a pleasure that's so natural to most people.

"Food is used to show affection, to be kind, to nurture social situations," said Ms. Munoz. "When someone has an allergy, they block all those emotions when they have to say, 'What does this have in it?'

"Still, if somebody makes something, you have to ask how it was prepared and then wonder if they gave you correct information. The only thing that tells you whether they did or didn't is whether you have a reaction."

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