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For an allergic child, ‘hypoallergenic’ could be mean ‘danger’

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At Granny-Made kids' retail store in New York City, store worker Adele Salzberg says pima cotton clothes are popular among tots and babies prone to allergic reactions. (Amy Tennery)

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At Granny-Made kids' retail store in New York City, store worker Adele Salzberg says pima cotton clothes are popular among tots and babies prone to allergic reactions. (Amy Tennery)

Tennery_AllergiesPhoto3.jpg

At Granny-Made kids' retail store in New York City, store worker Adele Salzberg says pima cotton clothes are popular among tots and babies prone to allergic reactions. (Amy Tennery)

When Alisna Coupe noticed her 18-month-old son’s constant sneezing, she couldn’t have imagined the severity of the underlying cause.

At first she thought the problem was pet dander her cat left behind, but his symptoms worsened rapidly. After a series of tests she learned her son was allergic to eggs, nuts, beef, lamb, soy and a host of household chemicals.

“Basically it meant he was allergic to everything,” said Coupe.

Raising a child with allergies is a taxing endeavor, one made tougher by the ambiguous and deceptive packaging and advertising offered by so-called allergy-friendly products.

The term “hypoallergenic” has no concrete definition, according to the Food and Drug Administration, even though products with that label claim to be safer for allergic kids and adults. Terms like “all-natural,” “organic” and “hypoallergenic” seem interchangeable to some, but allergists and parents with allergic kids tell a very different story.

Coupe said that keeping her son healthy has been a constant struggle. The boy lost 5 pounds and had to be fed through a tube. Coupe stopped using laundry detergent with fragrances and dyes. She streamlined the products in her home and even ripped out carpet that she said is loaded with harsh chemicals and installed hardwood floors.

“I have to scrutinize every single label...” she said. “There is a lot of misrepresentation from companies.”

Even though the FDA regulates what foods can and cannot be called organic, the term hypoallergenic can be applied to any product, regardless of the toxins it contains.

“There isn’t any standard that says ‘if it says hypoallergenic that means something’. It could have every allergen under the sun,” said Dr. Alissa Hersh, assistant clinical professor in the department of pediatrics at Columbia University Medical Center.

This means parents like Coupe must aggressively research products she uses rather than rely on consumer jargon.

Three years after her son’s diagnosis, Coupe is the vice president and co-founder of Protect Allergic Kids, a nonprofit support group. Parents use the organization to share ideas with one another on living a genuinely allergen-free lifestyle.

“Lots and lots of products appeal to peoples’ desire to be natural and wholesome and ‘back-to-basics,’” said Courtney Turay, a fellow group member. “Those things can be misleading for a parent.”

Turay said she is constantly vigilant to stave off her children’s allergic attacks. Two of her children have highly sensitive skin, and she said she remains cautious of buying any product that could exacerbate their condition.

She avoids laundry detergent with scents or dyes, and she’s stopped using fabric softener altogether, because she hasn’t found one that doesn’t set-off her children’s symptoms.

“You know, ‘pure, gentle, natural’—even ‘organic’—can be used as marketing terms,” said Stacy Malkan, spokesperson for the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a group that ranks cosmetic companies based on the number of chemicals they include in their products. “We have to make those terms mean something.”

Malkan said that reducing the number of household cleaning products and cosmetic and hygienic products a family uses is an effective way to stave off allergic reactions. In particular, she said, avoid extra items like bath bubbles that aren’t necessary and can further expose children to chemicals and artificial preservatives.

“Think twice about whether you really need a product at all,” she said. “Simpler is better. Choose products that have fewer chemicals, fewer ingredients.”

The campaign is set to expand its database of cosmetic company safety ratings this month with a report on chemical additives in child and infant hygienic products.

“There are many problematic chemicals used in leading baby products,” said Malkan. “Most of the conventional products marketed for babies, I wouldn’t use on babies.”

Adele Salzberg, who selects which products will be sold at the children’s store Granny-Made Sweaters in New York City, said most parents of allergenic kids buy pima cotton onesies and outfits because the fabric is less likely to irritate their skin.

Salzberg said she is careful to avoid large manufacturers, who often bleach their cotton in order to bring out bright colors.

Hersh, who has extensive experience treating children with household allergies, said this is a legitimate concern.

“Most clothes mass produced have formaldehyde in them to keep them nice and clean and crisp,” said Hersh. “You want to wash them twice before you use them.”

For Coupe, whose son is now 4 and a half, it’s a standard practice. She washes all her son’s clothes before they make contact with his skin.

She also keeps allergen covers—not hypoallergenic covers—on her son’s bed to avoid dust mites. After years of managing symptoms, her son is able to attend school part-time, with the company of a nurse.

Even though Coupe said she believes her son’s severe allergies aren’t readily obvious to his classmates and others, this small victory has come after years of hard work.

“There’s just so many things—we go to the hospital once every two months,” sighed Coupe. “It’s constant. The work behind it, it’s like the work of three kids.”

E-mail: att2113@columbia.edu