Oregon picks up latex glove controversy
SPECIAL REPORT: The Legislature will consider a bill to ban powder-dusted medical gloves that can raise deadly allergies.
By Patrick O’Neill
Anna Salanti’s worst fear is that she’ll get sick, and somebody will take her to a hospital.
Salanti has a potentially life-threatening allergy to latex, a substance found throughout the medical world.
On Dec. 16, while she was eating dinner in a Las Vegas restaurant, Salanti’s eyes began to itch, and she began to wheeze as her bronchial passages started to squeeze shut.
For the 45-year-old Portland resident, the feeling was all too familiar. Two years earlier, while receiving intravenous antibiotics through a latex tube for an infection, she developed the same symptoms.
Salanti is a vocal supporter of a bill in the Oregon Legislature that would ban latex gloves that are dusted with powder to make them easier to put on and take off. If the bill passes, Oregon would become the first state to ban powdered gloves in health care settings.
Salanti said she developed her allergy 20 years ago while working as a registered nurse in the burn unit of a San Francisco hospital. She would spend her days changing dressings, her hands encased in powdered latex gloves.
At first, her hands became red and sore. Within six months, she no longer could tolerate the gloves. Eventually she became a nursing case manager — a position in which gloves weren’t needed.
But as the years passed, her allergy became so acute that the slightest exposure to latex would set off increasingly severe symptoms. She finally left nursing altogether.
The Las Vegas episode was triggered by a food handler who prepared her meal wearing latex gloves.
Salanti is among a growing number of Americans who are allergic to latex.
The American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology estimates that 18 million Americans, or about 64 in every 1,000, are sensitive to the substance. That’s up from one in 1,000 in the early 1980’s.
The AIDS epidemic has made latex glove manufacturing a growth industry. Not only health care workers wear the gloves but also food service workers, janitors, police and firefighters.
Last year the organization launched a national campaign to raise the level of concern about latex.
Dr. Emil Bardana, head of the Division of Allergy and Immunology at Oregon Health Sciences University, said more and more people are developing latex allergies because of the broad use of powdered latex gloves.
There is widespread concern that the powdered cornstarch used in the gloves binds with the latex protein molecules. Bardana said the protein molecules cause allergic reactions when the body’s immune system mistakes them for harmful invaders. When the gloves are removed, the powder becomes airborne, taking the allergy-causing molecules with it.
The floating, protein-bearing dust can cause sensitivity to latex when people inhale it, he said.
Bardana said that although he’s concerned about latex allergies, he thinks that banning powdered gloves isn’t necessary.
“It seems to me that you may want to educate people to use these products in other ways,” he said.
The bill, proposed by the Oregon Nurses Association, would ban the use of powdered latex gloves in health care settings.
Debate about the bill is laced with both health and economic interests. Oregon has become a battleground for glove manufacturers who are jockeying for competitive advantage.
A Johnson & Johnson official said his company would fight the legislation.
“We are not aware of any scientific evidence that supports this bill,” said Robert V. Andrews, a company spokesman. “Our people are not aware of any evidence that shows there is any greater allergic reaction to powdered gloves.”
Johnson & Johnson casts the issue as a matter of personal choice for nurses and physicians.
“We believe health care workers should be able to choose for themselves which gloves they use,” Andrews said.
Ansell Perry Inc. of Massillon, Ohio, is the world’s largest maker of latex gloves, both powdered and powder-free. Romeo Catracchia, Ansell executive vice president, said his company has encouraged its customers to buy powder-free gloves.
The Oregon legislation, he said, “is aligned to what we would like to see happen in the marketplace.”
Catracchia said powder-free examination gloves are about twice as expensive as the powdered version, and powder-free surgical gloves are four to five times more expensive.
The reduction in medical costs to treat allergic reactions more than makes up for added expense, he said.
John W. Morgan, president of America’s Regent Medical Co. of Norcross, Ga., is in Oregon to help push the bill. His company makes powderless gloves.
“We certainly support the legislation,” he said. “We have an interest in it commercially and ethically.”
Patricia Kabele, a lobbyist for the Oregon Nurses Association, said the issue is one of safety for consumers and health care workers.
“Once you become sensitized, you can go into respiratory arrest just by walking into a hospital,” she said. “It’s egregious. We cannot stand by and let this happen. If you do believe in doing no harm, this is an issue for you.”
Susan McGann, president of the Delaware Valley Latex Allergy Support Network in Philadelphia, said Oregon will take center stage in the latex allergy debates.
“If this legislation passes, Oregon is going to be the ground for multiple issues to come on latex allergy, the biggest of which is who regulates hospital products,” she said.
Salanti’s Las Vegas episode had a happy ending. She called an ambulance and told the emergency workers to take her to a nearby clinic instead of a hospital emergency room, where she thought there would be more latex.
At the clinic, she said, she was given an injection to counter the effects of the latex.
SENATE BILL 1186
THE ISSUE: The bill would ban latex gloves that are dusted with powder, which makes them easier to put on. Health care experts think molecules of latex adhere to the powder particles, which can be breathed in, giving people allergies to latex.
THE PLAYERS: For: Sen. Thomas Wilde, D-Portland, 1-503-986-1708.
WHAT’S NEXT: A hearing is scheduled before the Senate Health and Human Services Committee at 3 p.m. Tuesday in Hearing Room B at the Capitol in Salem.
Patrick O’Neill covers health care policy issues for The Oregonian’s Health/Medicine/Science team. He can be reached at 503-221-8233 or by fax at 503-294-4150.
Reproduced here with permission.