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It’s essential to stay vigilant and take the necessary precautions to avoid exposure to latex and the potential development of a latex allergy.

My mother has had a latex allergy since 2002 and experienced anaphylaxis after exposure to latex medical equipment during my birth. As we’ve both become more educated about latex and its dangers, it’s our hope to spread awareness to others. 

Many years of research and education resulted in a request for a proclamation from Governor Ralph Northam in recognition of Latex Allergy Awareness Week in 2018. The following year, my mother and I were featured on WAVY TV in Virginia Beach. We received another proclamation from Northam as well as one from Virginia Beach Mayor Bobby Dyer. This year, Northam’s officially declared Oct. 4-10 Latex Allergy Awareness Week.

Seven states have laws that ban the use of latex gloves in food service. Hawaii’s law covers more areas, including all food entities, emergency response personnel and transport vehicles. Dentists’ and doctors’ offices must ask if one has a latex allergy. Virginia needs to be next to enact restrictions on latex, as it’s a life-altering allergen that should be taken seriously.

Latex allergies and latex products are more common and dangerous than people realize. 

According to the CDC, up to six percent of the world population — approximately 462 million people — has a latex allergy. Natural rubber latex comes from the sap of the Hevea brasiliensis rubber tree. Over 40,000 products are made with latex, including balloons, gloves, syringes/vials, sports equipment, bandages, condoms, tires and more. An allergy can develop from repeated exposure to latex products, and people with asthma, eczema or other allergies are at highest risk of developing a latex allergy.

There’s a misconception that latex balloons are safe to use as party decorations, but it isn’t true. Although any latex products can be potentially life-threatening for someone with a latex allergy, latex balloons are one of the most dangerous because of the high protein content. When comparing latex gloves and balloons, the ratio of protein particles is 1 to 4,700 units.

Latex particles can be transferred to food when prepared by people wearing latex gloves. Eating food contaminated with latex can cause severe allergic reactions in the digestive tract. Latex particles can be dispersed in the environment, which can cause an airborne reaction. 

The high risk for accidental exposures is frightening, as many people don’t realize that a latex allergy is progressive. What starts as a mild irritation may become something more serious. Not everyone progresses at the same rate: some may always have an irritation to a Band-Aid or glove that could slowly evolve to anaphylaxis; others could have anaphylaxis after one exposure.

Latex allergy affects many kinds of people, making a ban on latex critical.

During the HIV epidemic that emerged in the 1980s, healthcare workers were mandated to use latex gloves for protection. The increased exposure to latex caused many to develop an allergy. Currently, the CDC states that up to 12% of healthcare workers have a latex allergy. The rising use of latex gloves also affected dental care workers and peaked at a higher rate of 38% in the 1990s. 

After advocating for more latex-safe environments, COVID-19 has created some obstacles. Latex gloves have gained popularity as personal protective equipment. A nitrile glove shortage adds to the complications, making fewer latex-free alternatives available. With more people using latex gloves without knowing the dangers, those with latex allergies are at a higher risk of exposure.

Another high-risk group of the population is food service workers. It’s estimated that 17% of this group has developed the allergy from preparing and serving food with latex gloves, according to the US National Library of Medicine. A ban prohibiting them would create a safer work environment and reduce workers’ compensation claims.

A ban on latex would also relieve burdens that come with living with a latex allergy. Before eating at a restaurant, people with a latex allergy must ask what gloves the kitchen uses and whether balloons are present. A similar check is required when finding a hotel, flying on an airplane or attending a party that might have balloons. Many social activities are unsafe for those who live with a latex allergy, causing them to miss out on special occasions.

There are many symptoms of an allergic reaction to latex, but they could be mitigated with a ban on latex products.  

Products containing latex are harmful, but cross-reactive foods, such as bananas and avocados, may trigger an allergic reaction too. Considering the progression of someone’s latex allergy, there are several reactions that occur:

  • Skin Symptoms: rashes, hives, itchy skin, redness and discoloration

  • Respiratory Symptoms: wheezing, trouble swallowing, coughing, shortness of breath, sore throat or even swelling of lips, tongue and/or throat

  • Cognitive Symptoms: confusion or a “brain fog,” anxiety (fight-or-flight), feeling of impending doom

  • Other Symptoms: unpleasant metallic taste, abdominal pain/discomfort, drop in blood pressure and increase/decrease in heart rate

If someone’s experiencing two or more of these symptoms, like wheezing and hives, they’re at risk of having anaphylaxis and will usually require an epinephrine auto-injector (EAI), like an EpiPen or Auvi-Q®. Some may think their latex allergy isn’t serious or won’t require these life saving medications, but everyone with a latex allergy should have an Emergency Action Plan from their doctor and discuss carrying epinephrine with them. 

Many people aren’t aware of how serious a latex allergy could be until it becomes part of one’s daily life. A latex allergy isn’t curable, but it’s preventable. The key to preventing reactions to latex is avoidance. A ban on latex products would diminish potential exposures for those with an allergy, and it’d prevent others from developing one. It’s vital for everyone to be aware of how many latex products are being used and replace them with safer alternatives. Advocacy isn’t just done by those with the allergy: it’s a community effort.

One can visit the Allergy and Asthma Network or Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America websites for more information about latex allergies.

Michael Russo is a freshman media arts and design major. Contact Michael at russomw@dukes.jmu.edu.