Question of the Week

May 13 2008


For those with latex allergies, it can seem that almost everything has a little bit of latex (natural rubber latex) in it: rubber bands, rubber tub toys, rubber pencil grips, rubber utensil grips, latex gloves, and more...

"Natural rubber latex is a common ingredient found in many consumer products ... [N]atural rubber latex is derived from a milky substance found in rubber trees (Hevea brasiliensis). While many people come in safe contact with latex-containing products every day, some susceptible individuals have developed hypersensitivity to proteins derived from natural rubber latex, which can cause allergic reactions. ... Latex allergy generally develops after repeated exposure to products containing natural rubber latex. When latex-containing medical devices or supplies come in contact with mucous membranes, the membranes may absorb latex proteins. The immune system of some susceptible individuals produces antibodies that react immunologically with these antigenic proteins."

It might seem obvious that someone with a rubber latex allergy needs to avoid rubber bands and latex gloves. Their names give them away. When the name doesn't contain the information needed, or contains misleading information, the topic can get more complicated.

People who are trying to avoid latex might not know to avoid glue pens, keyboard cords, or the elastic in bathing suits. At the same time, they might think it obvious that they need to avoid latex paint.

"Not all latex products are made from natural sources. Products containing man-made (synthetic) latex, such as latex paint, are unlikely to cause a reaction because they aren't used against the skin and don't contain the natural substance."

Since the "latex" in latex paint is man-made, it does not contain the same proteins that are found in the latex that comes from rubber trees, and many with latex allergies can use it without any negative effects.

For those with latex allergies, it may be comforting to know that latex paint is free of natural rubber latex; for most other people, it is not likely something they have given much thought.

That said, latex paint is not the only product people come into contact with on a frequent basis that has a confusing name.

With the many toy recalls and health warnings in the past year, consumers have been warned of the dangers of lead paint. Unlike latex paint, lead paint actually does contain lead, and it is a health hazard for everyone (not just those with a possible allergy).

"Lead is a highly toxic metal that may cause a range of health problems, especially in young children. When lead is absorbed into the body, it can cause damage to the brain and other vital organs, like the kidneys, nerves and blood. Lead may also cause behavioral problems, learning disabilities, seizures and in extreme cases, death. Some symptoms of lead poisoning may include headaches, stomachaches, nausea, tiredness and irritability. Children who are lead poisoned may show no symptoms."

With recent recalls, some children have been told that certain toys are unsafe, and they need to stop playing with them because they have lead paint. Some families have lead paint in their homes, or in the soil around their homes. They have been told to be careful when remodeling, painting, and playing or growing food in the soil.

"Dust and paint chips from chipped and peeling lead paint are still the number one source of childhood lead poisoning. However, there is a risk of lead poisoning from other sources such as jewelry, toys, imported food, pottery, cosmetics and traditional medicines that contain lead."

With all this concern about lead, some are confused. Why do the toys with the lead paint need to go away, but the pencils they use everyday are lead pencils? Many know that the "lead" in a pencil is not really lead, but, once again, the name can be confusing.

"The 'lead' in a pencil has not been made of lead for centuries. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans all used small lead discs to rule lines on sheets of papyrus before writing on them with a brush and ink. By the 14th century, European artists were using rods of lead, zinc or silver to make pale grey drawings called silverpoint. In the 16th century, Conrad Gesner of Zurich, in Switzerland, in his Treatise on fossils, described a writing rod held in a wooden case. But lead ceased to be a writing implement in 1564, when pure graphite was discovered at Borrowdale in the North of England and the modern pencil was born. Graphite is a form of carbon, which is one of the softest minerals. When it is pressed against paper, thin layers flake off to leave a black mark. ... The 'lead' is made by mixing together fine graphite and clay and then firing it in sticks in a kiln. ... The leads for coloured pencils or crayons contain no graphite at all. They are made from pure clay and wax, coloured with pigments."

Questions of the Week:
In what instances can the names of products help people easily differentiate which products may or may not have health implications? What other products with confusing and/or misleading names (besides latex paint and lead pencils) do you know about that might have health implications for certain people? If you or someone you know has a question about a product, where can you get trustworthy information about the contents, the safety, and the other potential health issues that may be associated with a given product? How can the people who are affected find out the truth about a product when the name complicates the issue, rather than clarifies it?

Please email me with any ideas or suggestions.
Note: Due to increasing amounts of SPAM sent to this account, please include "QOW" in the subject line when sending me email.

I look forward to reading what you have to say.

Health Community Coordinator
Access Excellence @ the National Health Museum

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