Lethal Latex

Latex Allergy Awareness Week: October 7 – 13, 2018

My mother, Lisa Russo, has had a latex allergy since 2002 and experienced anaphylaxis after exposure to a piece of medical equipment that contained natural rubber latex during my birth.  As we have both become more educated about latex and its dangers, it is our hope that we can spread awareness to others. In our efforts, my mother researched and gathered information about latex allergies and requested an official proclamation from Governor Ralph S. Northam of the Commonwealth of Virginia, husband of Mrs. Pam Northam, former Lower School science teacher at Cape Henry.  Governor Northam agreed to the proposed proclamation in recognition of Latex Allergy Awareness Week was October 7-13, 2018. The link to the online version of the Proclamation can be found here.

Natural rubber latex comes from the sap of the Hevea brasiliensis tree, or Hevea rubber tree. Over 40,000 products are made with natural rubber latex, including balloons, gloves, sports equipment, bandages, condoms, tires, and more.  An allergy can develop from repeated exposure to latex products and people with asthma, eczema or any other allergy are at highest risk of developing latex allergy.

Several CHC Upper School students and faculty were polled about which item (bandages, latex gloves, latex balloons, sports equipment, and duct tape) would be the most dangerous to someone with a latex allergy.  While 50% of the respondents said latex gloves would be the most harmful,  25% said latex balloons would be cause for concern. Although all of the products in the poll can be potentially life-threatening for someone with a latex allergy, latex balloons are the most dangerous because of the high latex protein content.  According to the website of the Brodstone Memorial Hospital, the ratio of allergy units of latex per milliliter between a glove and a balloon is 1 to 4,700 units. Latex particles are transferred to food when prepared by people wearing latex gloves and are dangerous when this food is consumed by a person with the allergy. Someone could also have airborne reactions to any latex product because the latex particles are dispersed through the air and are almost impossible to avoid since they cannot be seen.

According to the CDC, up to six percent of the world population has a latex allergy.  Mr. Chris Souther (Upper School Science) explained that “the human body produces histamines,” chemicals that are released by the body’s immune system as a defense mechanism to allergens. Antihistamine medications work by blocking the histamine receptors.  In severe allergies, an antihistamine is not enough and injected epinephrine (e.g, Epi-Pen, Auvi-Q) followed by a trip to the emergency room is needed for anaphylaxis.

A latex allergy is a progressive allergy.  What may start as a mild irritation can progress into something much more serious.  Not everyone progresses at the same rate: some people may always have an irritation to a Band-Aid or glove and it could slowly evolve to anaphylaxis; others could have anaphylaxis after just one exposure.

Before eating at a restaurant, people with a latex allergy must ask about the gloves they use in the kitchen and whether there are balloons in the dining room.  Hotels can also present a dangerous situation if the mattress contains latex, housekeeping staff uses latex gloves to clean bedrooms, or balloons are in the building.  On airplanes, flight attendants may use latex gloves to serve snacks or collect trash; in an enclosed space, the latex particles will circulate through the entire plane and may cause people with latex allergies to have an airborne reaction.  In a school setting, there are many items besides balloons and gloves to avoid: rubber bands, erasers, fitness/sports equipment, and cross-reactive foods in the cafeteria.

Mrs. Sarah Williams (CHC Director of Operations) confirmed that members of the custodial staff and cafeteria staff do not use latex gloves in the cleaning of the school or in the Cafe Dolphin, nor does the clinic use medical equipment with latex.  She added, “Cape Henry does a great job of being nut-aware and not serving meals with nuts in the cafeteria where students may be at risk. I think the best thing to do is to educate our students and faculty about latex so they are more aware and can be cautious of it.”

During the HIV epidemic that first emerged in the 1980s, healthcare workers were mandated to use latex gloves for protection, so they were increasingly exposed to latex which caused many to develop an allergy.  Currently, the CDC states that 8-12% of healthcare workers have a latex allergy. The rising use of latex gloves also affected dental care workers and peaked at an even higher rate of 38% in the 1990s.

Ms. Tracey Pinkin (CHC Athletic Trainer, Upper School Science) uses powder-free nitrile gloves in the Athletic Training room and on the playing field, and has not “ordered anything with latex for about six years.” She always carries a latex-free emergency medical kit if she needs to treat student-athletes.

Adults are not the only ones with allergies.  Thirty-four percent of children who have had three or more surgeries in their life and an astonishing 73% of kids with Spina Bifida have a latex allergy.  They have been exposed to latex more than others (often directly to mucous membranes), and therefore are at very high risk of developing the allergy.

Another high-risk group of the population is food service workers.  It is estimated that 12% of this group has developed the allergy due to the latex gloves used in preparing and serving food.  A local Virginia Beach restaurant, Red Robin, does not use latex gloves, but they inflate latex balloons inside the building and hand them out to customers as they wait to be seated.  Although they are a restaurant that is very proactive about food allergies, the latex balloons in the building contaminate every surface and meal in the restaurant and kitchen. Eating food that has been contaminated by latex may cause allergic reactions in the digestive tract as well as other symptoms as severe as anaphylaxis.

There are many foods and plants that contain a protein very similar to latex and the body perceives it as latex. This is called latex-fruit syndrome.  Banana, avocado, and kiwi are three of the most common foods that cause reactions, among many others. Poinsettias and weeping fig trees are dangerous as well, as they have latex-like sap inside the plant.

During an interview with Mr. Adam Woods (Food Services Manager of Aladdin Food Management Services), he explained that the staff of Cafe Dolphin does not use latex gloves after they were removed last year. The staff was made aware that the continued use of latex gloves would be life-threatening to students with latex allergies and safe, latex-free gloves have been provided.  The members of the Cafe Dolphin staff have monthly training on allergies – mainly food-related allergies – and discuss the menu daily before each lunch session to make sure students with allergies are not served food that is unsafe for them to eat. Mr. Woods described how before he graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in 2000, “the only allergies that were discussed there were peanuts, maybe gluten.  We didn’t talk about latex allergies and we wore latex gloves; they were the only ones around to use.” He is not sure if any former or current colleagues have a latex allergy, but at his former workplace, “there were powder-free latex gloves used,” which are still dangerous to people with latex allergies, and “there was one person whose skin was irritated by the gloves.” Mr. Woods added, “In hindsight, he may have had an allergy.”

Exposure to any latex product, food, or plant can be harmful.  Based on the progression of someone’s latex allergy, there are several types of reactions that occur.  There are different symptoms for the various systems of the body. For example:

  • Skin Symptoms: rashes, hives, itchy skin, redness, and discoloration
  • Respiratory Symptoms: wheezing, trouble swallowing, coughing, shortness of breath, sore throat, or even swelling of lips, tongue, and/or throat
  • Cognitive Symptoms: confusion or a “brain fog,” anxiety (fight or flight), feeling of impending doom
  • Other Symptoms: unpleasant metallic taste, abdominal pain and discomfort, drop in blood pressure and increase or decrease in heart rate

If someone is experiencing two or more of these symptoms, like wheezing and hives, they are at risk for anaphylaxis and will usually have to use an epinephrine auto-injector (EAI), like an Epi-Pen or an Auvi-Q.  Auvi-Q gives you step-by-step audio instructions on how to use it so someone who has never seen one could administer it to the person experiencing anaphylaxis. There are various other medications that may treat one system at a time, but every person with a latex allergy should have an Emergency Action Plan from their doctor.

A lot of people are not aware of how serious a latex allergy could be until it becomes part of your daily life.  It not only affects the individual but the people around them. It requires all members of the family to be vigilant and be on alert to avoid any possible exposure to latex.  Remember, a latex allergy is NOT CURABLE, BUT DEFINITELY PREVENTABLE.  The key to preventing reactions to latex is AVOIDANCE.


To find more information about latex allergies, visit the American Latex Allergy Association website or the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America website.