An old enemy lurking in the shadows: The problems associated with latex products are still with us

By Anne Guignon, RDH, MPH, CSP

Latex allergies need to remain on the radar of all dental professionals, especially those practicing from the early 1990s forward.

First, a history lesson; then, the reality of a continued, potentially life-threatening situation.

In the early 1980s, reports swirled about a dangerous new viral infection that scientists named HIV/AIDS. Ten years later, a television report implicating the transmission of the human immunodeficiency virus to a dental patient hit the airways. The public went wild. People were scared to undergo dental treatment. Dental health-care workers were scrambling for answers on how to protect themselves.

Evolution of PPE

The world of health care turned upside down. The Centers for Disease Control and Infection (CDC) started sending out infection control protocols right and left. Dental supply companies worked as fast as they could to fill the mounting orders of gloves, masks, gowns, disinfecting chemicals, and other barrier techniques.

Dental professionals had to learn to work differently. Seasoned clinicians complained about losing tactile sensitivity, poor glove fit, sweaty hands, and itchy skin. Clinicians heard the public outcry and were worried about their safety. New regulations for personal protective equipment (PPE) soon became the standard of care, and workers learned to adapt. Manufacturers looked for products that would protect from bloodborne hazards and provide increased comfort. No one ever imagined that products health-care workers were required to wear would lead to the demise of their clinical careers.

Most gloves at that time were made from natural rubber latex (NRL), a stretchy material that conformed well to the hand. Wearing a latex glove is like covering one’s hand with a thin rubber-band-like film; compression keeps gloves in place. Workers complained that gloves were hot and hard to don. In response, companies added powder.

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