[Vertebrate Pests] Peanut Allergies and Pest Management

June 11, 2003

Over the past few years in the U.S. there has been an increased interest in peanut allergies and our industry’s use of peanut butter as a universal bait attractant on our rodent, wildlife and monitor traps. The question, "Is our use of peanut butter in pest control programs of any threat to clients who may be, or have children who may be, allergic to peanuts?" is being asked more and more by pest management professionals and some components of the public as well (e.g., schools, apartment complexes, etc.). To answer this, let’s first examine food analphylaxis.

ALLERGIC REACTIONS. Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic response in a person to specific triggers, which in untreated and severe cases, can be fatal as a result of the contraction of smooth muscle tissues associated with the airways preventing normal breathing.

Anaphylaxis may occur as a result of a person’s immune system reacting to a protein, (e.g., the proteins associated with peanuts). Essentially, the body recognizes the protein as a threatening foreign substance and primes the body’s defenses against it. Each time the person comes in contact with this protein, the immune system launches an attack by releasing histamines and other powerful chemicals. The release of these chemicals triggers symptoms of an allergic reaction, which can range from hives to gastrointestinal discomfort to deadly anaphylaxis.

As most pest professionals know, severe cockroach and mouse infestations and certain types of pesticide exposures may sometimes serve as triggers for asthma attacks in susceptible individuals, while those hyper-sensitive to insect venom may suffer an anaphylactic shock after being stung by wasps, bees or ants. And those who have a history of allergies or asthma, or have had an anaphylactic response previously, can be at an increased risk for experiencing anaphylaxis.

In addition to insect venom and the proteins associated with some pests, allergic reactions to certain foods are also a common cause of anaphylaxis. In fact, food allergies are responsible for the greatest number of anaphylaxis occurrences (excluding hospital-associated events). Experts estimate that from 2 to 2.5 percent of the general population, or 5.4 million to 7 million Americans, have food allergies. About three million of these are believed to be allergic to peanuts or tree nuts alone. Other common foods that cause allergies include fish, shellfish, milk and others.

Food allergy anaphylaxis results in about 125 deaths each year. Some allergists believe this perceived rise in incidence may be attributed to increased exposure to allergenic foods, before children’s immune systems are mature enough to handle them.

The crux of the issue for our industry is that this can happen with a child’s first known exposure to a particular food. And, even more importantly, rare cases have been documented in which inhalation exposure to a food has triggered an anaphylactic reaction.

REALISTIC RISK? But all of this begs the practical question: Does the amount of peanut butter smudged onto some rodent traps or glue monitors installed into inaccessible areas (e.g., ceilings, beneath equipment, inside cabinets, etc.) pose a realistic threat to a peanut-allergic child or person in that building? In scenarios such as this one, the risk is probably remote. Of course, installing snap traps at floor level in child-accessible areas where a peanut-allergic child might find and inquisitively interact with the traps might increase the risk. But even here, what is the risk of a child eating or contacting enough peanut butter to trigger anaphylaxis? (Not to mention the chance of the trap going off and causing a fright and a smarting finger.)

But I don’t believe we can dismiss this issue out-of-hand either. I say this for three reasons. First, the concern of harm to hypersensitive individuals from low exposures of certain chemicals or foods is certainly not a new issue to the pest management industry. The current debate over whether or not a dry insecticide residue of a pyrethroid sprayed along a baseboard inside a school hallway to check foraging ants is of any realistic threat to the school children proves this point.

Across the multitude of service routes in the United States, thousands of snap traps and other baited pest devices are being installed into schools, day care centers, homes and apartments every week. A parent of a peanut-allergenic child (or the parent themselves) is not going to want to debate whether or not small smudges of peanut butter placed on a few mouse traps and installed in voids is of any realistic threat or not. Understandably, they don’t want any peanut butter in their homes, classrooms or anywhere else near their child. Period. With this in mind, Canadian pest management professionals stopped using peanut butter in day care, schools and homes where there are children several years ago.

Second, it is important for pest professionals to acknowledge the effort child-care facilities, parents, the food industry, office complexes, airlines and other industries have undergone to avoid inadvertently harming peanut-allergic individuals. To appreciate this, one need only conduct an Internet search for "food allergens." To me, I think the peanut-al-lergy issue is similar in scope and intent to the national school IPM effort to minimize children’s exposure to pesticides.

Third, while its true that peanut butter is one of the industry’s most universal bait attractants for animal traps and insect pest monitors, there’s no research that demonstrates peanut butter is any more effective than any other trap attractant. In most cases, synanthropic rodents (i.e., those that are active in and around human dwellings and operations) are opportunistic foragers. That is, urban rodents are attracted to a wide range of food items they encounter during their daily forays such as oatmeal, chocolate, extract oils, and bacon bits, to mention a few.

CHOOSING BETTER ATTRACTANTS. This being said, choosing a trap attractant for the majority of every day pest management operations defaults to two on-the- job practicalities: 1) A bait that can be easily stored and kept fresh for long periods on the service vehicle and, (2) the handling ease in which the bait can be used on the job (e.g., baiting several dozen or more snap traps quickly). Thus, a container of oatmeal, a jar of bacon bits or a plastic squeeze jug of chocolate syrup are all effective baits. Ordinary oatmeal flakes have been a universal mouse bait for decades. (Note: Oatmeal should be stored in sturdy, tight plastic containers to protect the oats from absorbing any chemical odors). (For discussion regarding "best" trap baits and trapping strategies see Vertebrates Column, PCT September 1998 Snap Trap Baiting Strategies. — although consider the current update regarding the use of peanut butter). So back to the original question: Should we abandon peanut butter attractants to err on side of safety and awareness? I think so. I think we should follow the Canadians philosophy on this issue. But not necessarily from a sound science aspect — because I believe our significance in this issue although not nil, is extremely low. As Paracelsus, (the 16th Century father of toxicology) taught: "the dose makes the poison" is highly applicable to this issue.

But I believe we need to lose the peanut butter because a peanut-allergy concerned client will not care about Paracelsus. As we have learned the hard way throughout the past two decades, when it comes to potentially harmful chemicals, pathogens, molds, viruses, and now even food, "allergy/pesticide-alert clients" think only in absolutes, i.e., there is peanut butter (pesticide) in my house, or my child’s school, day care center and so forth.

Thus, when you consider we lose nothing scientifically, it makes sense to me that we demonstrate whenever we can how informed we are as professionals that service homes, schools, hospitals and so forth. That whenever we can, we make every effort—to even extraordinary levels — to protect society from pests, pesticides, microbes, and in this case, even potentially dangerous foods.

The author is president of RMC Pest Management Consulting and can be reached at rcorrigan@pctonline.com or 765/939-2829.