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Introduction

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that one in 10 people are sensitive to natural rubber latex. Among individuals with latex allergy, repeated exposure to latex results in sensitization and increased risk of allergic reactions. High risk groups for latex sensitization include healthcare workers and patients with early and repeated exposures to latex, such as infants with congenital spina bifida having multiple surgeries.

Latex allergic reactions can range from mild skin rashes to severe and life-threatening anaphylactic shock. Since no known cure for latex allergy exists, avoidance of latex exposure is the only protection. Healthcare facilities have taken a variety of approaches to reducing both worker and patient exposure to latex. These include replacing products made of natural rubber latex products with those made of a synthetic latex as an alternative. Some facilities have created latex-free procedure rooms, operating rooms or special procedure carts, while others have attempted to move to an entirely latex-free hospital.

A federal law took effect in 1997, and recently amended in 2014, that requires medical products and packaging with natural rubber latex to carry a statement on the label. “Caution: This Product Contains Natural Rubber Latex Which May Cause Allergic Reactions.” However, there is no requirement that products be labeled “latex free”, and so creating a latex-free environment can prove to be a challenge. Many hospitals have used the term “latex-safe” to describe environments designed for latex-sensitive patients and staff, recognizing that all latex might not have been eliminated.

Serious reaction to latex and related health problems among latex sensitive individuals can be minimized or prevented with a thorough understanding of the risks of latex allergies and the implementation of strategies to reduce these risks.

Latex basics

There are two types of latex – natural rubber latex and synthetic rubber latex. Natural rubber latex is obtained from the milky fluid from a rubber tree called the Hevea Brasiliensis. Natural rubber latex should not be confused with synthetic rubber (for example, butyl or petroleum-based). Synthetic latex is made from petroleum and does not contain the naturally occurring proteins found in natural

rubber latex. Synthetic latex materials include: polyvinyl chloride (vinyl or PVC), nitrile rubber (acrylonitrile-butadiene copolymers), and polychloroprene known by its trade name, Neoprene™.

Latex free product labels

The FDA is encouraging manufactures of FDA-regulated medical products to stop using statements on labels such as “latex-free” or “does not contain natural rubber latex” because these statements are not scientifically accurate. Instead, the FDA recommends manufacturers use the labeling statement -“not made with natural rubber latex” – to indicate when natural rubber latex (NRL) was not used as a material in the medical product or product container.

The terms “latex free” and “does not contain natural rubber latex” suggest that the medical product is completely without NRL. However, even when medical products are not made with NRL, there is a chance that products can become contaminated with NRL allergens during manufacturing or packaging processes. There is no test to show that a medical product is completely free of NRL allergies.

Also, phrases such as “latex free” that are not specific about the kind of latex being referred to can cause confusion. Latex may be natural or synthetic. Synthetic latex, such as nitrile and polyvinyl chloride, does not contain the proteins responsible for NRL allergy. Not all reactions to wearing gloves are from latex. There are other chemical additives to gloves that may cause an allergic reaction or irritant contact dermatitis in the person wearing them.