Why Allergies Might Someday Mean the End of Latex Gloves

Nearly 3 million people have latex allergies.

“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.

“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.”

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.

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.”