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Study: City kids more likely to have food allergies

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Updated: June 27, 2012 11:58AM

Children living in big cities have a much higher prevalence of food allergies than those in rural areas, according to a new study, the first to map children’s food allergies by geographical location.

In particular, kids in big cities are more than twice as likely to have peanut and shellfish allergies, according to a release from Northwestern University.

Lead author Dr. Ruchi Gupta, assistant professor of pediatrics at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine, said, “We have found for the first time that higher population density corresponds with a greater likelihood of food allergies in children. This shows that environment has an impact on developing food allergies. Similar trends have been seen for related conditions like asthma. The big question is – what in the environment is triggering them?”

Gupta said some of her future research will focus on identifying the environmental causes. One hypothesis is that exposure early in life to certain bacteria associated with rural living may protect against hereditary hypersensitivity to allergens. Or, pollutants encountered in urban areas may trigger the development of these allergies.

The study included 38,465 children 18 and under, mapped by ZIP code. Key findings include:

— In urban centers, 9.8 percent of children have food allergies, compared to 6.2 percent in rural communities, almost a 3.5 percent difference.

— Peanut allergies are twice as prevalent in urban centers, where 2.8 percent of children have them compated to 1.3 percent in rural communities. Shellfish allergies are more than double the prevalence in urban versus rural areas; 2.4 percent to 0.8 percent.

— Food allergies are equally severe regardless of where a child lives, with nearly 40 percent of food-allergic children in the study having experienced a severe, life-threatening reaction.

An estimated 5.9 million children under age 18, or one out of 13, now have a potentially life-threatening food allergy, according to 2011 research by Gupta.

The states with the highest prevalence of food allergies are Nevada, Florida, Georgia, Alaska, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and the District of Columbia.

Past research has shown an increased prevalence of asthma, eczema, allergic rhinitis and conjunctivitis in urban areas versus rural ones, the release noted.

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