Understanding latex allergies
The Canadian Center for Occupational Health and Safety describes latex as a milky sap produced by certain plants, shrubs and trees, including the commercial rubber tree Havea braziliensis. “The latex sap is made up of tiny droplets that contain water and hydrocarbon polymer and have a coating comprised of proteins,” CCOHS adds. This protein substance has been identified by researchers as a major source of latex allergies.
Products that contain latex include protective gloves, medical devices, tires and tubes, and carpeting. CCOHS says latex allergies are a common hazard for workers in a number of industries, including those in health care, hair salons and law enforcement, as well as lab technicians, glove manufacturers and housekeepers.
Workers with a latex allergy may develop dry, itchy and irritated areas of skin, known as irritant contact dermatitis. Some workers may experience allergic contact dermatitis, which occurs when rashes and blisters develop after coming in contact with latex. Workers can also be exposed to latex by breathing in airborne latex particles.
“More severe reactions may involve immediate hypersensitivity with respiratory symptoms such as runny nose, sneezing, itchy eyes, scratchy throat and asthmatic symptoms, including coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, chest tightness and more severe reactions such as swelling of the face, lips and airways,” CCOHS says.
The center recommends employers take the following steps to protect workers:
- Use non-latex products.
- Use high-efficiency particulate air, or HEPA, vacuums to clean up latex-containing dust.
- Educate workers about latex allergies.
- Consider periodically distributing screening questions to track how many workers have latex allergies.
- Encourage workers with latex allergies to consult an allergist.