Heather (who asked for her last name not to be used) was first advised by a neighbour back in June that peanut butter had been found on the play structures at Perth Avenue Park in the Junction Triangle neighbourhood of Toronto. “My son is eight years old and has an anaphylactic peanut and tree nut allergy, so this immediately filled me with both rage and dread,” says Heather. When a child with a peanut allergy touches peanut butter, it can easily be transferred to their mouths, where even trace amounts could cause a life-threatening reaction called anaphylaxis. Perth Avenue Park, which is located next to Heather’s kids’ school and was a daily stop for them, suddenly became a dangerous place that could kill her son.
Heather advised the nearby school’s principal and called the City of Toronto, and the park was cleaned up in a matter of hours. But within weeks, she heard reports of peanut butter being found at other Toronto parks: Carlton Park and, more recently, Dufferin Grove and Hillcrest Parks.
Police have been notified about the incidents, but Constable Caroline de Kloet, a media relations officer for Toronto Police Services, says spreading peanut butter on park structures is not a criminal act, so there is no role for the police at this point. “There are obviously people who have very severe allergies that can lead to death,” says de Kloet. “But to have a criminal investigation because there is peanut butter in a park—I don’t believe that’s being done at the moment.”
Still, the question remains: What. The. Hell? Why would someone do such a thing? And not just once, in one park, but multiple times in multiple parks. Parents like Heather are horrified and bewildered.
Matthew Cutler, manager of public relations and issues management for Toronto's Parks, Forestry and Recreation, says parents should report acts of vandalism in city parks to by calling 311. "Any vandalism of playgrounds is a serious concern for the City," he says. "Given the known issues with peanuts and the risk of anaphylaxis in some children, this vandalism is even more concerning."
Constable de Kloet's advice is that parents always travel with their child’s EpiPen (an epinephrine auto-injector, which can be used in an emergency to help treat anaphylaxis before seeking further medical attention), as well as a cell phone so they can call 911 in case of an emergency. (Solid advice, but parents of kids with allergies are surely already doing these things.) If you come across peanut butter in a public space in your community, de Kloet suggests spreading the word among your neighbours and on social media.
Heather took to Twitter on Aug. 10 to warn other parents, tweeting: “Attention #Toronto parents of children with nut #allergies. Someone is actively smearing peanut butter on play structures in parks. Be alert.”
“This is a terrifying trend,” she says. “It's upsetting to think that a place that is built for the enjoyment of children is now a place that I have to think twice about. Even the idea of his friends playing on the structures and then coming into contact with my son makes me nervous, as the smallest trace amount of peanut can cause a reaction in those who have allergies. We have enough to be worried about on a daily basis. I did not need to add this to the list!”
Peanut allergy affects two out of 100 children in Canada, according to Food Allergy Canada. Some 3,500 Canadians experience anaphylactic shock each year from eating the wrong foods, and of that number, about a dozen will die.
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