Say It Ain’t So, Everett!
UE News, November 1999
During the 1980s, when federal and state officials were still
pussyfooting about the dangers of cigarette smoking, one government official
stood firm and tall — Surgeon General C. Everett Koop. With his Lincolnesque
beard and imposing manner, Koop denounced the tobacco industry’s campaign to
encourage teen smoking and called for federal legislation to protect the
public’s health. He left office in 1990 as one of this country’s most
But times change, and people do, too. Now in 1999 Dr. Koop has
been caught in an ethical scandal involving worker health and safety. Earlier
this year, on March 25, Dr. Koop unexpectedly testified before a U.S. Congress
hearing on the health hazards of latex gloves. He said the reports of allergic
reactions to these gloves by hospital nurses and other health-care workers
were exaggerated. "Borderline hysteria" is what he called the
complaints. Dr. Koop’s opinions were widely reported and had an important
impact on Congress and the general public.
What Congress and the public did not know was that at
the time he testified, Dr. Koop had just completed a four-year business
contract with a major latex-glove manufacturing corporation, WRP Corp. This
was recently revealed in a hard-hitting article by reporter Holcomb Noble in
the New York Times of Oct. 29. As a result of this contract, according
to Noble’s report, Dr. Koop earned $656,250 in consulting fees from the
company in the four-year period from 1994 to 1998.
During his testimony, Dr. Koop did not tell the committee of
his involvement with WRP Corp. His spokesperson, Mary Beth Zupa, said that Dr.
Koop’s contract had ended before his March 1999 testimony, and therefore he
was not obliged to report the contract or his involvement with WRP. But Dr.
Sheldon Krimsky, a professor of environmental policy at Tufts University,
disagreed. "Anyone who attempts in a public forum to influence public
policy has an absolute obligation," he said, "to disclose any
financial interests he has or has had within a timeframe that could be
perceived to represent a bias — and it certainly did in the Koop case."
Also according to the Times article, in 1997 — while
he was still under contract — Dr. Koop telephoned Dr. Linda Rosenstock,
director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH),
urging her to tone down the language in upcoming NIOSH report on the health
effects of latex gloves. He did not tell her of his association with WRP, and
NIOSH went on to publish its report with strong warnings about the potential
risks of powdered latex gloves.
Why are health care workers, as well as patients’ rights
groups, so concerned about latex gloves? According to a recent NIOSH study,
about 10 percent of all health-care workers regularly exposed to latex dust
powder from these gloves develop allergic reactions. Five persons are known to
have died from these reactions.
Among nurses alone, an estimated 200,000 have developed such
allergies, according to Susan Wilburn, a health and safety specialist from the
American Nurses Association. Also, many public health employees in clinics,
nursing homes, mental institutions and clinical labs, among others, regularly
use these gloves. Hospital and clinic patients are also exposed to these
dusts, and there have been many reports of allergic reactions among them.
Typical symptoms of such reactions are sneezing and coughing
when exposed to the powder from these gloves, as well as a tearing of the eyes
and a sense of general discomfort. Like all allergies, these powdered latex
glove allergies can develop suddenly, after many years of exposure with no
problems. A process of sensitization then develops, and the person’s
reactions can become more and more severe as the allergy progresses.
Eventually an affected person can develop anaphylactic shock, and even die
from the allergy. So if you or a family member is exposed and show such
symptoms, it is important to leave the exposure area at once and/or tell
caregivers (if you can) that you may be experiencing such a reaction.
There are alternatives to latex gloves. Some manufacturers now
make gloves without latex powders. These are now regularly used by the Mayo
Clinics and Johns Hopkins Hospital, among other health-care institutions.
NIOSH, in its bulletin issued in 1997, urged workers to use non-latex gloves
for activities not involving infectious materials. If infectious materials are
being handled, NIOSH recommends using latex gloves which are
"powder-free" and have "reduced protein content." This
position has also been adopted by OSHA, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration
and the American Academy of Allergies, Asthma and Immunology.
No, Dr. Koop, this is not a case of even "borderline
hysteria." The hazards are as real as your consulting contract — and