Why Allergies Might Someday Mean the End of Latex Gloves

PHOTO: Dr. Mary Catherine Gennaro lobbies state legislatures to ban latex gloves from being used in the food industry.Dr. Mary Catherine Gennaro
Dr. Mary Catherine Gennaro lobbies state legislatures to ban latex gloves from being used in the food industry.

For many years, Dr. Mary Catherine Gennaro would feel itchy all over after performing surgery. Now a retired physician living in New Hampshire, she began suspecting she was allergic to the protective gloves she wore while treating patients after having a particularly bad reaction.

“I started to swell all over my body and broke out in hives across my back. I was flushed and red. It was just awful,” Gennaro, 58, recalled of the incident that happened about 20 years ago.

Soon after, a doctor diagnosed Gennaro with an allergy to latex. At least 3 million Americans have a diagnosed allergy to the protein that comes from the rubber tree, according to the American Latex Allergy Association. That’s about the same number as people with peanut allergies, but Gennaro said the number could be much higher.

“It could be as high as 16 million: one in 17 people,” she said. “Many with the [latex] allergy don’t know what it is or they don’t report it.”

Latex allergies range from mild to life threatening. Symptoms include hives, swelling, redness all the way to trouble breathing and anaphylactic shock.

The problem goes far beyond latex gloves worn in the medical profession, Gennaro said. Latex is used in over 40,000 common products, including elastic waistbands, pencil erasers, children’s toys and fitness equipment. The allergic response escalates with each exposure and can sometimes trigger allergies to fruits and vegetables -- like avocados, bananas and kiwis -- that contain similar proteins.

Gennaro said her allergy is so severe that she cannot eat food handled by people wearing latex gloves, a common practice in the food industry. She finally decided to do something about it last year after the chefs at one of her favorite restaurants started wearing them.

Now, Gennaro works with a group of five other women with latex allergies to lobby state legislatures to ban the use of latex gloves in food service. “People tend to listen better at the local level,” she said.

Her group points to two state’s departments of health, Arizona and Oregon, that prohibit the practice. Rhode Island has passed a law, she said, and the women are working on getting bills before the state legislature in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, California and Connecticut. A bill being considered in Hawaii is calling for a ban on the gloves in the health care and dental industry, as well, her group says.

Alternative glove materials such as nitrile and vinyl are just as effective for preventing the spread of disease, Gennaro said. But they used to be so expensive, it was difficult to get lawmakers to listen to the argument against latex, Gennaro said.

“As the costs have come down, some of the alternatives are actually cheaper,” she said. “And, often, the cost of defending just one malpractice suit or disability due to latex exposure will pay for the switch.”

At the very least, she hopes her actions will alert people to what she refers to as a silent epidemic.

“The best treatment we have is awareness,” she said. “The more people know about this, the better chance we have of making a difference.”