Trigger Warning

Food allergies are an added obstacle for students navigating college

by Kristen Wehara

“I know I’ve eaten something that’s been contaminated when I feel a sort of tingling in the back of my mouth. Then my throat starts to constrict.”

For at least 1 in 50 Americans, anaphylaxis, or anaphylactic shock, is a life-threatening allergic reaction, triggered by certain foods. Anaphylaxis is characterized by symptoms such as wheezing, hives, and an itchy throat. It escalates to fatal symptoms, such as low blood pressure, breathing difficulty, and loss of consciousness.

thumbnailMilk, soy, dairy, eggs, tree nuts, peanuts, fish, and shellfish are all triggers for allergic reactions for some of the members of my apartment. These are seven of the eight major food allergens recognized by the law. Apartment life with severe allergies requires some accommodations – two sponges in the sink, one for cleaning dishes without allergens, and one for everything else, and no peanuts allowed in the apartment, as their dust and residue can trigger a reaction.

Students living in larger settings also have to make accommodations. A member of Delta Gamma, a campus-affiliated sorority, discussed how peanuts aren’t allowed in the lower level of the sorority house, because of one member’s severe allergy.

Public institutions are required to accommodate for food allergies

Under the Americans with Disabilities of 1990 (ADA), food allergies may classify as a disability. Thus, public universities such as UC Berkeley must make “reasonable modifications” to accommodate everyone, including those with severe food allergies. For on campus housing, Cal Housing tries to make accommodations for students with food allergies. Possible solutions include a kitchen or kitchenette, an extra mini fridge to store food, etc. Campus housing in the residence halls includes a meal plan, so students with food allergies eating at the dining commons, have to be aware that although Cal Dining “strives to serve food that is safe to [its] customers,” there is still a “small possibility” that the manufacturers of the foods used may change their formulation, and there may also be cross contact – or cross contamination – in the kitchens.

Even a trace of an allergen can be enough to trigger a reaction.

thumbnailAccording to UC Berkeley sophomore Julie Ambo, the biggest danger occurs with “cases full of a lot of different food [that are] self-serve,” such as “the shelf with scones in the GBC [Golden Bear Cafe].” In those cases, the foods aren’t labeled. “That’s the part that’s most dangerous for me because they don’t have labels about what the foods are.”

Because of this, people with severe food allergies have to carry EpiPens with them, an auto injector which administers a dose of epinephrine (adrenaline), in the hopes of stopping an allergic reaction.

EpiPens in the news

EpiPens have frequented the headlines lately. In September, Heather Bresch, the CEO of Mylan, the manufacturer of EpiPens, testified about the price increases of EpiPens and the profits made from them during a congressional hearing.

According to Ami Yuen, a sophomore at UC Berkeley, though the price of the EpiPen seems excessive, the vilification of Mylan in the media has been blown out of proportion. “Media covering this topic should take the entire pharmaceutical industry into consideration before they target a certain company, like Mylan. From an economic standpoint, it’s natural for them to raise their prices, as they are a monopoly, and they haven’t raised their prices more than a thousand dollars, as some other companies have.”

DIY medicine as an alternative

The high price of the EpiPen has led to others creating “EpiPencil” and other devices to administer epinephrine, the active ingredient/medicine in EpiPens, which costs about $1. These devices lack the auto-injector feature of the EpiPen, and come with the risks associated with making your own medicine, such as lack of proper sterilization, improper dosage, and counterfeit materials.

However, to some, the risks may be worth it. The EpiPencils cost about 5% of the EpiPen’s sticker price, with the materials needed to DIY an EpiPencil costing around $30 total. EpiPen’s main competitor, Auvi-Q, a smaller epinephrine auto-injector that talked users through how to use the device, suffered a huge loss when it was recalled in 2015. New, more convenient alternatives to EpiPens, such as Abiliject and AllergyStop, are being developed, but it may be years until they are FDA approved.

Four Thieves Vinegar, the creators of the EpiPencil, present their free resources, such as an open-source automated lab reactor that enables people to create their own medicines and the guide to create the EpiPencil, to the public. Their motivation is to provide free medicine for everyone, especially because the high costs of prescription medicines can save the lives of only those “who can afford them.”

Many students on campus are covered by SHIP for health insurance, which reduces the cost of the EpiPen to $25, and the cost of the generic epinephrine auto-injector to $5, which is definitely less than the $608 sticker price. However, this isn’t the case for everyone, and those with high deductibles have to shell out lots of money to keep these lifesaving devices on hand. For those with severe allergies, it is a price they have to pay.