By Allison Ward
The Columbus Dispatch
For the parents of a young child with food allergies, an autumn church festival can be something of a land mine.
Baked goods, ice cream and other foods with unknown ingredients — they all pose a danger to a youngster who is still learning what he can and can’t eat safely because of such allergies.
Which is why Cindy Gordon has become increasingly proactive.
Before leaving her Plain City home for the recent church outing, she applied temporary tattoos to the arms of sons Carson, 6, and Benjamin, 3.
One circular tattoo alerted potential food providers to the boys’ nut allergies; the other cautioned more generally of an “Allergy Alert.” (Benjamin is also allergic to dairy and is gluten-intolerant; Carson also has a dairy intolerance.)
“They both are anaphylactic to peanuts and almonds, which means it could be a deadly situation for them,” Mrs. Gordon said. “I wanted to make sure that if we got separated from them, they’d be safe.”
The latest trend in allergy-alert products allows children to make allergies known in a fun, visual way at an age when they might not be able to voice the dangers themselves.
Dr. David Stukus had seen young patients wearing alert bracelets or T-shirts but, during the summer, he began receiving inquiries about tattoos after articles about them appeared in USA Today and on the lifestyles website Yahoo Shine.
The topic pervaded social media, the allergist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital said, after a 13-year-old girl at a California summer camp died in late July of an allergic reaction to peanuts.
Every year in the United States, more than 200 children and adults die of food allergies, Stukus said. Almost 6 million children have a food allergy — “That’s two kids in every classroom,” he said — with milk, eggs and peanuts being the most common.
Reactions, ranging from hives to difficulty breathing, vary by individual and incident.
Tattoos, Stukus said, shouldn’t replace a parent-teacher action plan — both to prevent an allergic reaction and to clarify what should be done when a reaction occurs. Parents should begin teaching their child self-advocacy at a young age, he added.
Gordon bought the tattoos ($8 for 25) online from Peanut Free Zone, based in Canton.
Similar tattoos are sold by Safety Tat, started by Ohio State University graduate Michele Welsh, and other companies.
Gordon’s boys also wear an AllerBling bracelet with cute charms that detail their allergies, and they carry epinephrine auto-injectors in packs around their waists.
She uses the tattoos, she said, for field trips and gatherings.
“They’re a great visual for other adults to see.”
Stacey Stratton and her sister Denise designed the Peanut Free Zone tattoos to make them eye-catching.
“We use bright colors — yellows and reds — and there is no other fluff,” said Stratton, a former special-education teacher.
The two women started the company in 2010, because Denise Stratton’s sons have peanut allergies. The sisters also sell allergy-alert postcards, stickers and bracelets.
Some people warn, however, that the tattoos can give parents a false sense of security and that they can rub off.
“Parents might think, ’Oh, I have this on my child, so I don’t have to say anything,” said Amy Behnen, owner of Nut Free Sweets in New Albany, whose 6-year-old son, Landon, is allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, coconut and wheat.
Her son also has eczema, which is irritated by temporary tattoos.
Lewis Center mom April Booth found the tattoo idea intriguing but hasn’t applied the tattoos on 5-year-old son Mitchell. Instead, she hooks homemade tags alerting people of his multiple food allergies on his book bag, lunch pack or belt loop.
“I’d love to be able to put (a tattoo) on when he goes to school or when we go out and about,” said Booth, noting how children feel safe accepting food from adults, who might not be aware of any allergies. Her son is allergic to nuts, sunflower and sesame seeds, pineapple, watermelon and broccoli.
Stukus said some experts worry about kids being bullied further (almost a third of children with food allergies are bullied, he said) with such a visible exclamation of their allergy.
“But the more awareness, the better,” he said. “With a food allergy, there is no threshold — no safe amount.”
In the Gordon household, the tattoos also bring a bit of positivity to an experience that can be negative: Having to tell a child he can’t have a cupcake at a birthday party is difficult, she said.
“The tattoos are a neat thing.”