For generations, latex gloves dominated the disposable gloves market. In fact, there really wasn’t an alternative to this naturally derived substance that comes from the rubber trees of Asia. For years, the FDA and various healthcare agencies were aware of the instance of allergies to this protein but were unable to identify a quality alternative.
In the mid 1990’s, the compounds acrylonitrile and butadiene proved to provide a greater chemical resistance than their latex counterparts and being a synthetic material, produced a much lower rate of allergy per 100,000.
Thanks to these innovations, nitrile disposable gloves were born.
Allergies occur in two well known ways. The first is those who are born with an allergy to particular substance. Those substances are typically peanuts, lactose, and insect stings. However, most allergies are acquired as someone ages and comes into contact with potential allergens.
For reasons that are still unclear, the body’s immune system randomly identifies a foreign matter as a potentially harmful invader and creates a histamine response to attack the “invader.” This histamine response is behind the symptoms we associate with allergies.
One of the most important factors to consider is that for a substance to be attacked by the body’s immune system, it must first gain access to the body in the first place. This requires the allergen to be ingested, inhaled, absorbed or injected.
When it comes to allergies associated with latex, the most common route is absorption, such as through the skin or through the mucus membranes of the eye.
Anaphylaxis, a severe allergic reaction, caused nearly 3000 deaths between 1999 and 2010 according to a study performed by the NCHS. Along with fatalities, less severe allergic reactions led to hundreds of thousands of hospital visits, costing individuals and healthcare facilities hundreds of millions of dollars per the NIH.
Latex contributed to a vast number of those visits and affected large numbers of healthcare workers who were exposed to the still present latex materials in medical settings. The NIH estimates that nearly 4.3% of the general population suffer from a latex allergy, or roughly 290,000,000 people.
For context, that was the total population of the United States in the year 2000.
Latex allergies cause a variety of symptoms, ranging in severity, these include but are not limited to:
The largest danger posed by latex is in the healthcare setting. Patients who are already suffering from an injury or illness have symptoms and severity compounded by exposure to latex, resulting in potentially fatal outcomes.
Nitrile is a synthetic, or man-made material that is derived by a combination of compounds and chemicals that are far less likely to have an allergic potential. Furthermore, since nitrile is not a naturally occurring substance and lacks basic molecular players such as proteins, it is far less likely to be absorbed into the body.
The human body can’t necessarily control what a person swallows, inhales, or has injected into it. However, it can control what is absorbed.
For a substance to gain access to the body via absorption, it must open a series of cellular doors that require a certain molecular structure. If the substance lacks the proper “credentials”, the cellular doors remain closed and deny access.
The line of defense the skin and mucus membranes create is the reason why medications, supplements and other helpful substances must be ingested or injected when a cream or droplet would be far easier and cheaper. Simply, the body wouldn’t allow it to absorb, so the other routes must be utilized.
Nitrile is one of those substances, or compounds, that lacks the molecular credentials to open the cellular door. In very rare cases, the compounds gain access and can possibly cause a reaction, but the instance is so rare that the CDC and NIH can’t create a sample size big enough for a quality study.
Occasionally, in ER’s and doctor’s offices across the United States, physicians identify nitrile as an allergen in subjects presenting with the symptoms of allergic reaction.
For all intents and purposes, an allergen is diagnosed in a person by a very skilled game of go fish. Some cases are very apparent, such as someone who is stung by a bee and then experiences angioedema and trouble breathing. Others are incredibly hard to identify, so the physician and the patient go through everything the person has eaten, breathed in, been bitten by or touched in the last several days.
The doctor then goes through the list and identifies common allergens and through further investigation identifies what they believe to be the likely cause. Agents that the person has been newly exposed to are placed at the top of the list and treated as such.
In the cases where nitrile is identified as the allergen, usually because someone recently visited a healthcare facility or started using nitrile gloves in their work life, the cause is often trace amounts of latex that have made their way into the nitrile. This can happen with cross contamination, poor quality assurance, or just shoddy manufacturers.
With this information in mind, it further reduces the already scarce numbers of nitrile allergies that occur in the general population.
For those who believe they have an allergy to nitrile, or have been told they do by their physician, it’s imperative to confirm that hypothesis for the sake of health.
Firstly, if you have been recently exposed to nitrile and have had a reaction, confirm that the nitrile you are using is truly the acrylonitrile-butadiene synthetic rubber compound that its supposed to be.
Check for potential cross contamination with another common allergen such as latex, pollen, dust and nuts. These contaminations occur in the natural environment, kitchens, food handling businesses and healthcare settings.
A set of nitrile gloves that have come in contact with any of these substances will produce an allergic reaction in people sensitive to the other compounds, but ultimately, it’s not the nitrile that is causing it.
From a practicality point of view, anything is possible. The list of things that were impossible, such as manned flight, space travel, breaking the sound barrier and Batman losing a fight have all come true. So, to say something cannot happen is bold, and most likely will be proven wrong at some point.
What can be said though, is that the chances that someone will develop an allergy to nitrile is highly unlikely and pales in comparison to its direct counterpart latex in instance of reaction.
Every choice that is made in industry, work, health and life has a list of pros and a list of cons. Each option has the benefits that it provides to an individual or corporation and they must be weighed against the potential downside to make an informed decision.
Now that nitrile disposable gloves have been a mainstay on the market for over 20 years, a qualified, informed and study backed comparison can be made to latex. That comparison shows that nitrile not only outperforms latex in its essential functions, but always shows less downside while remaining cost effective.