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Using Powder-Free Latex Gloves Reduces Latex Allergy Rate in Healthcare Workers

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Researchers at The Medical College of Wisconsin investigating latex allergy in healthcare workers have demonstrated that the most effective public health strategy to prevent allergic sensitization is by stopping the use of powdered latex gloves. Previous medical studies pointed out this association of latex allergy to powdered latex glove use but were not able to completely confirm this link in specific workers. Reducing the use of powdered gloves reduced the allergen in the air and in air ducts at two hospitals, and prevented sensitization to latex in healthcare workers at both institutions. These findings are published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

Kevin J. Kelly, MD, professor of Pediatrics (allergy/ immunology) and Internal Medicine and vice chair in Pediatrics at the Medical College, and his colleagues studied more than 800 healthcare workers at Froedtert Hospital and Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin over a 4.5-year period. Researchers tested the amount of latex allergen in the air ducts of the employees’ primary work areas before and after both institutions switched to powder-free gloves and found a significant correlation between high levels of airborne allergen and healthcare workers with a latex allergy or sensitivity.

The switch to powder-free gloves led to significant changes at both hospitals. The unique study design allowed the investigators to determine that there was a 16-fold reduction in the rate of latex sensitization among the study participants. Among the healthcare workers who were sensitized to latex at the beginning of the study, 25 percent lost that sensitivity and are no longer considered sensitized to latex. Whether these fortunate workers will redevelop latex sensitization if exposed to latex in the future is unknown.

The switch to powder-free gloves led to significant changes at both hospitals.

“This study provides the strongest evidence that allergic sensitivity to latex in healthcare workers is linked to airborne allergen exposure through powdered gloves,” Dr. Kelly says. “I believe these findings provide a roadmap for healthcare institutions that will help minimize the risks of latex sensitization to healthcare workers.”

Dr. Kelly’s team also found healthcare workers who had demonstrated latex sensitization were nearly three times more likely to leave their jobs. This phenomenon has been termed “the healthy survivor” effect and helps explain why there may be an artificial reduction in latex allergy seen in some studies, as the affected workers choose to no longer be employed without receiving workers’ compensation from a work-related exposure.


This article was originally published in Coping® with Allergies & Asthma magazine, September/October 2011.