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Peanut-Free Ballpark Seats for Allergic Fans

WASHINGTON-- Take me out to the ballgame — just hold the peanuts.

Catering to allergy sufferers and parents concerned about reactions that can range from minor irritation to life-threatening anaphylactic shock, a third of major league ballclubs are offering peanut-free seating at some games this season.

While there's disagreement about how much exposure can trigger a reaction, the peanut-less seats are a hook that's gaining traction from Boston to Atlanta.

In Washington, the Nationals have offered suites with peanut-free seats at a handful of games each season since 2007. During a recent July game, parents came toting coolers full of homemade snacks, as well as EpiPens, which are used to give injections that counter severe allergic reactions.

"I have eight EpiPens in my purse right now," said Carolyn Blaylock, whose peanut-allergic sons, 5-year-old Bryce and 4-year-old Nikolas, sat with her in one of two glass-enclosed peanut-free suites during the July game. "(Bryce) has been throwing the ball since he could walk and he loves watching the Nats on TV with his dad. It's fun to be able to take your kids to things their friends are able to do."

Laura Billak said she was thrilled to bring her 7-year-old daughter, Rachel, to the game. Like many children in the peanut-free section, Rachel tested positive for peanut allergies as a baby.

"Literally, your child could die. A lot of parents out there don't understand the severity," Billak said. "When we found out there was a peanut-free suite, we jumped all over that."

The Nationals go to great lengths to ensure the safety of the peanut-free seats, including washing the sections twice before the peanut-free games. They also make sure that fried foods throughout the ballpark are cooked in canola, not peanut oil.

The Frederick Keys, a minor league team in Maryland, keep an allergist on hand during their annual peanut-free game to scan for signs of anaphylactic shock, a deadly reaction that can result in suffocation.

Some think the steps are more about helping fans relax than countering a real safety threat.

Dr. Robert Wood, the director of pediatric allergy and immunology at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center in Baltimore, said watching a game in an outdoor ballpark poses no significant threat to peanut-allergic children or adults — even those who have had severe reactions in the past. But as a marketing technique, it works, he said.

"Somebody who might not even enjoy baseball that much might go out to a game to support this team who is making an effort for their peanut-allergic children," Wood said.

Unlike the cabin of an airplane or an enclosed sports arena, baseball stadiums are safe, he said, because reactions to peanuts caused by inhaling airborne particles or touching crumbs and crushed shells rarely occur in an open space.

"But there are plenty of people who would still be worried even if I told them the risk is small," Wood said. "They just can't imagine being around this many peanuts."

For many worried parents, tickets for the peanut-free seats are hot items. On Thursday, only eight tickets remained out of the 75 made available for the Nationals game Friday against the St. Louis Cardinals, the last peanut-free game this season.

Lara Potter, the Nationals vice president of brand development, said the team sold out all 50 of the $25 peanut-free seats for the May and June games. The team added an extra peanut-free suite for Friday's game because of the increased demand.

"We even have some fans who live in other MLB cities, but drive to D.C. to enjoy baseball games since their teams don't offer peanut-free games," Potter said.

Christina Black, sitting in a peanut-free suite with her 8-year-old son, Robbie, was rooting for the Philadelphia Phillies during the July game, but praised the Nationals for offering the tickets.

"Some people think it's odd because they come to the ballpark and expect peanuts to be part of the experience, but we're just so grateful the Nats decided to do this," Black said.

Even so, when it comes to baseball, peanuts are a mainstay. At Nationals Park, they top the most widely sold snack list. Brian Beck, a team spokesman, said they're right up there with hot dogs and beer.

"We sell way more peanuts than Cracker Jacks, I can tell you that," he said.

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