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Say It Ain’t So, Everett!

Not only are they safe ...

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 respected physicians.

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.

656,250 REASONS

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 tarnished reputation.

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