Amanda Bowers, an emergency room nurse, always keeps her EpiPen nearby during her 12-hour shift. Bowers is allergic to latex, and the tiny needle loaded with epinephrine is her weapon against a life-threatening allergic reaction.
Even though the Columbus, Ohio, hospital where Bowers works is latex-free, the stretchy gloves donned by paramedics rushing patients into the ER are enough to make Bowers' eyes water and her skin itch. If she gets too close, it gets hard for her to breathe.
"If I'm in the same room as them, there are enough particles in the air to have a reaction," Bowers said. "I can tell it's coming on, and I just try to avoid it as best I can."
Bowers said she has never had to use her EpiPen while on duty, but she's always on the lookout for latex -- as a health care worker and as a patient. The blood pressure cuff at her doctor's office or the rubber hub in a hypodermic needle could trigger a severe rash or an asthma-like reaction.
To protect health care workers and patients from these debilitating allergic reactions, the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen has petitioned the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to ban latex and powdered medical gloves, citing health consequences that range from a mild rash to death, depending on a person's sensitivity.
"Large numbers of patients and large numbers of health care professionals have been adversely affected by latex, powdered gloves," said Dr. Michael Carome, deputy director of Public Citizen's Health Research Group. "Direct contact with latex products can cause skin reactions and, in some patients, anaphylaxis."
Carome explained how small particles in the natural rubber can attach to the corn starch powder used to ease the gloves on and off the hands, and become airborne.
"When the gloves are snapped on or off, that latex can go into air," Carome said. "If a health care worker or a patient with an allergy inhales it, they can go into anaphylactic shock, a generalized allergic reaction with respiratory symptoms and a drop in blood pressure."
The petition is the third filed to the FDA since 2008, Carome said, and the second effort by Public Citizen following a 1998 petition to ban powdered rubber gloves. The watchdog organization argues that safer alternatives, such as powder-free synthetic gloves, have become widely available, and should be used in place of latex.
"More manufacturers have been making more of those gloves, because many hospitals are starting to require those kinds of gloves," Carome said.
Earlier versions of latex-free gloves were expensive and difficult to use – the FDA cited both pitfalls in response to Public Citizen's previous petition.
"They used to be like big plastic ziplock bags on your hands," Bowers said.
But better materials and more competition among manufacturers have improved the quality and reduced the cost of latex-free gloves.
"Synthetic gloves and nonpowdered gloves are more expensive. But it can't just be a consideration of the cost of the gloves themselves," Carome said, adding that sick days, injury compensation and long-term disability claims should factor in, too.
"When you add in all those costs, we believe that the cost differential becomes much more neutral," Carome said.
Although more hospitals are independently switching to latex-free gloves to protect patients and staff, Carome said the FDA is "acting recklessly" by not mandating it.
Karen Riley, a spokeswoman for the FDA, said the administration would review Public Citizen's petition and respond to it within 180 days.
Some paramedics at her Columbus hospital switched to latex-free gloves when they learned of Bowers' allergy. And even the Columbus Fire Department uses latex-free gloves, Bowers said.
"I would definitely be supportive of a ban," she said. "It's safer for patients and health care workers."