Latex Lurks in Unexpected Places

Dr. Barbara Zucker-Pinchoff is not the only person for whom the New York theater scene had her up and out of her seat, but she may be the only person who had to run in fear for the door.

At a production of the acrobatic theater performance De La Guarda about 14 years ago, Zucker-Pinchoff and her family looked on in wonder at the costumed actors and the light show projected on a paper ceiling. But Zucker-Pinchoff felt something was not right.

"I turned to my husband and said, 'There's latex here, I'm going to have to leave,'" Zucker-Pinchoff, now 55, said. "As I left, the ceiling opens up and latex balloons come pouring out. I ran out of the theater."

Zucker-Pinchoff suffers from an allergy to latex, the natural rubber that comes from South American trees. Although the allergy is better understood now than it was 20 years ago, natural rubber latex is widely used and can pop up in unexpected places with serious consequences.

Balloons and other soft dipped rubber products are the classic offenders, and this category includes latex gloves, condoms, rubber bands and plastic bandages. The latex molecules in soft dipped products, where the rubber is kept liquid before the final molding, are quite volatile, free to escape into the air or be transferred to the skin.

With a hard dipped rubber product -- tires or hard plastic toys, for instance -- the latex protein molecules are bound up in the material and are much less likely to cause a reaction.

"[The process] has a direct bearing on how allergenic particular products are to somebody who has a latex allergy," said Dr. Marc Riedl, section head of Clinical Immunology and Allergy at the University of California Los Angeles.

Other every day items that can contain small amounts of latex include newsprint, pacifiers, kitchen gloves and the elastic in underclothing, particularly underwear, stockings and bras.

A Hidden Danger

Dr. Gary Stadtmauer, assistant clinical professor in the Department of Medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, said a latex allergy seems to be one of those where increased exposure leads to increased sensitivity. And the severity can vary over time. Often, those with the allergy find they become highly sensitive almost overnight.

Sue Lockwood, 51, was a surgical nurse and said she wore hundreds of latex gloves each week at the hospital where she worked. She had no history of allergies, but around 1990, she began having contact dermatitis and asthmalike symptoms. Her eyes would swell, and she would get hives. Soon after, her new allergy took a bad turn.

"I had an anaphylactic reaction, and there was nothing I was doing different," Lockwood said. "My body just could not take on any more protein."

Lockwood's latex allergy became so serious that she soon had to file for disability and Social Security, leaving her work in the medical world behind.

"It was a devastating nightmare, to start. It was unbelievable," said Lockwood, who is now co-director at the Milwaukee, Wis.-based American Latex Allergy Association, an organization she founded. "It took my whole life and turned it upside down."

Zucker-Pinchoff, who's allergy developed around the same time as Lockwood's due to her constant contact with latex proteins in hospitals, also left her career as an anesthesiologist at New York's Mount Sinai Medical Center.

"It was not only unsafe for me, this was unsafe for my patients," Zucker-Pinchoff said.

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