cover image Allergic: Our Irritated Bodies in a Changing World

Allergic: Our Irritated Bodies in a Changing World

Theresa MacPhail. Random House, $28.99 (368p) ISBN 978-0-593-22919-4

Medical anthropologist MacPhail (The Viral Network) delivers an uneven overview of the science on allergies. Explaining that they likely arise from a blend of genetic and environmental factors, she discusses the genetic mutation that puts certain people at risk of anaphylaxis from bee stings and research that found air pollution leads to higher rates of asthma and respiratory allergies. MacPhail admits “we’re stuck with largely unreliable data” on allergy frequency and treatment, a problem that leads to some notable inconsistencies. For instance, she questions whether evidence from surveys, insurance claims, and hospital admissions suggesting increased allergy rates merely indicate greater awareness and willingness to seek help, but later makes the contradictory claim that researchers “can all agree on one thing:... the number of allergy sufferers worldwide is likely to keep growing.” Her overview of treatments also gets bogged down in contradictions, as when she posits that air filters “probably don’t help, and they might actually make things worse,” but later suggests they “can filter some or most of the allergens, like pollen, from the air.” There are some enlightening tidbits (she outlines a damning take on how restrictive rules make federally funded food programs almost useless for many with severe food allergies), but MacPhail’s clumsy navigation of uncertainties in the scientific literature will leave readers feeling lost. This doesn’t come together. (May)