A Hazard Alert from the Department of Labor & Industries about Latex Allergy

November, 1997

What is the concern about using latex gloves?

While latex gloves provide protection against blood borne pathogens in a variety of occupations and uses, the Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) warns that wearing certain latex gloves can result in allergic reactions for some users. Symptoms of latex allergy can include skin rash and irritation, hives, nasal congestion, asthma, and in rare instances, shock -- a potentially fatal condition. Individuals who develop an allergy to latex may also have some similar cross-reactions to certain foods (avocado, banana, potato, tomato, kiwi fruit and papaya). Individuals prone to allergy are at greatest risk for developing an allergy to latex products.

What has contributed to the increase in latex allergy?

Because latex gloves provide positive protection against blood borne pathogens, there has been a dramatic increase in the use of these gloves -- especially among health care workers -- to meet worker protection requirements adopted in the 1980s. With this increased use and changes in glove manufacturing that resulted from the increased demand, there has been a rise in reported allergic reactions by some users. Studies indicate that 8% to 12% of exposed health care workers suffer allergic reactions to latex. In addition, many individuals may experience allergic irritant symptoms, such as skin rash, from the chemicals used in the production of the latex products. In addition to health care, other workers who are at risk but with less frequent glove use include hairdressers, housekeepers, food service workers and child care workers.

What causes the allergic reaction to latex?

These allergic reactions result from exposure to either the proteins or chemicals found in natural rubber latex products. The proteins may also adhere to the cornstarch powder that some manufacturers use to coat the gloves to make them easier to put on and take off. Once on the cornstarch, the protein particles can become dispersed in the air where they are readily deposited on skin and mucous membranes in the eyes, nose, and throat. Regular and repeated use of latex gloves can result in the wearer becoming highly sensitive to the proteins or chemicals found in any latex product. Once sensitized, individuals may react to very small exposures, even products or food handled by someone wearing latex gloves. Common latex products used at work and home in addition to gloves include various medical devices, rubber bands, balloons and condoms.

How can I prevent latex allergy?

L&I points out that in many instances, depending on the exposure, workers can get the required level of protection from nitrile, vinyl or other synthetic gloves. When latex gloves are required, powder-free gloves with reduced protein content should be used. Some of this information may be available on the box label. Products that use the term "hypoallergenic" are not lower in protein allergen content and should not be the sole criteria for choosing an acceptable alternative. It is important to keep in mind that the Bloodborne Pathogen Standard states that glove alternatives shall be accessible to those employees who are allergic to the gloves normally provided (WAC 62-08001(4)(c)(iii)).

Need help?

For more information or assistance, contact a Labor & Industries' consultant in your area.

Other useful material:

  • More information is also available from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health’s (NIOSH) Hazard Alert Preventing Allergic Reactions to Natural Rubber Latex in the Workplace, DHHS (NIOSH) Publication No. 97-135 which presents more detail on this issue. To receive a copy call (800)-35-NIOSH. It is also available on the internet at http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/latex/. A shorter version called, Latex Allergy: A Prevention Guide, DHHS (NIOSH) Publication No. 98-113 is also available at the same phone number or web page.


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