Powdered latex gloves risky
It seemed innocuous: Put powder on latex gloves and hurried
hospital workers could pull them on more easily. But scientists
now say the powder's dust spreads life-threatening latex
allergens, strong enough that a few whiffs have sent nurses into shock.
A consumer group urged the government january 7th to ban powdered
latex gloves. The Food and Drug Administration acknowledged a
serious problem and pledged to write rules quickly to minimize
the danger, but stopped short of agreeing to a ban.
"Powdered latex gloves are a serious, unnecessary menace in
hospitals and other health care facilities all over the
country," said Dr. Sidney Wolfe of Public Citizen Health
Research Group. "Safer alternatives such as powder-free gloves
are easily and currently available."
Thousands said to be at risk
An estimated 8 percent of the nation's 7 million health care
workers have latex allergies that can cause reactions ranging
from itching and hives to difficulty breathing and
Experts say thousands of patients are at risk, too. Most are
patients who undergo multiple surgeries, particularly as
children. Between 40 percent and 65 percent of spina bifida
patients, for example, have latex allergies.
In the last year, the FDA has received 305 reports of serious
reactions to latex gloves -- powdered and powder-free -- and
Oregon tried to ban powdered gloves after a nurse there died.
Glove makers successfully fought the ban but are facing lawsuits
in other states by allergic health care workers who lost their
The FDA has studied the problem for two years and encouraged
glove makers to go powder-free, said medical device chief Dr.
Bruce Burlington. But he said the FDA would not ban powdered
gloves because so few alternatives are sold that hospitals would
face serious shortages.
'We recognize the severity of the problem'
Powdered latex gloves make up the vast majority of the U.S.
surgical glove market. Powder-free latex gloves make up about 26
percent of the market and vinyl gloves, a relatively new
product, a small portion of it.
"We recognize the severity of the problem," Burlington said. "We
need to move on it, but in a way that doesn't leave the vast
majority of health care workers without the protection they
When pressed about the two-year delay, FDA Associate
Commissioner William Hubbard said the agency will soon start
writing regulations to minimize the risk -- but he would not
Latex gloves are worn mostly by health care workers to protect
against the AIDS virus and other diseases but are also worn by
restaurant workers, janitors, police and firefighters.
'Latex allergy has become an epidemic'
Scientists say the latex risk is exacerbated by gloves coated in
cornstarch powder -- because the powder absorbs latex proteins
and emits them in dust as people pull the gloves on and off.
"Among health care workers who are highly exposed to powdered
latex gloves, latex allergy has become an epidemic disease,"
said Dr. Lauren Charous of the Milwaukee Medical Center. He is a
member of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and
Immunology, which recently urged an end to powdered glove use.
The powder itself also can cause complications, including
infections and scar tissue, when it gets inside surgical wounds,
said Dr. Richard Edlich of the University of Virginia, who
sparked the FDA's initial probe two years ago.
The FDA in 1971 warned surgeons to wash their hands after
donning the gloves to remove some powder. Last September, it
also ordered every latex-containing medical product to carry an
allergy warning label.
Manufacturers are trying out gloves made from other materials.
But a spokesman for leading manufacturer Johnson & Johnson,
which makes both powdered and powder-free latex gloves,
dismissed the powder risk. "We've never seen any documentation
... indicating the additional risk of powder," said spokesman
Powder-free gloves can be more expensive, and some surgeons
particularly resist changing, say three hospitals that banned
powdered gloves: Brigham & Women's in Boston, Jackson Memorial
in Miami and Methodist Hospital of Indiana.
"It has not been easy going powder-free," wrote Jackson Memorial
administrator Alma Breeden. But seeing allergic employees
consequently return to work "has been a rewarding experience."