North Arundel Hospital bans rubber balloons Potential fatal reaction to latex prompts action


Glen Burnie's North Arundel Hospital has banned a potentially deadly health hazard that can cause eyes to itch and swell, and bring on coughing, rashes, asthma and cardiac arrest.

Rubber balloons.

Last week, hospital administrators instructed security to stop anyone walking into the lobby with them in hand. Simply being near rubber balloons can trigger allergic reactions in people sensitive to latex rubber products, explained Tammie Neall, an infection control practitioner at the hospital who is allergic to latex and who pushed for the ban.

"There are proteins [in latex] that shed off the balloon into the air. People have walked into an area where there are balloons and had an asthma attack from breathing it in," said Neall.

The hospital's ban is rare. In Baltimore, Johns Hopkins Hospital has tried to bar the balloons for about six months and Kennedy Krieger Institute bans them from rooms of patients known to be allergic to latex.

Lise C. Borel, national director of Elastic, a West Chester, Pa.-based nonprofit organization that promotes awareness of latex allergy, said she knows of only 10 hospitals in the country that have enforced balloon bans. Borel estimated that 10 percent to 17 percent of all health care workers and 1 percent to 6 percent of the general population are allergic to latex.

At North Arundel, Neall said a survey three years ago showed 10 percent to 15 percent of staff members were allergic to latex.

Neall said people also can develop allergies to the substance from being exposed to it regularly -- she began having symptoms after using latex gloves every day for two years while working in a medical laboratory.

Rick Wade, spokesman for the American Hospital Association, said hospitals have been looking for alternatives to latex for the past two years. He said hospitals became concerned about the issue after health care practitioners increasingly began to develop allergies in the mid-1980s. This followed the AIDS epidemic and the use of latex gloves as protection in situations where they wouldn't have been used before.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has received more than 1,700 reports of severe allergic reactions to latex within the past decade, including 16 deaths in 1989 attributed to contact with latex on the tip of barium enema catheters. The catheter manufacturer recalled the tips and replaced them with silicone tips.

James Murphy, managing director of the Latex Advisors Association, a San Juan Capistrano, Calif.-based industry organization, said sales of latex products "have dramatically decreased" in the past two years.

"Right now, the industry is in a state of crisis," he said. "You're seeing mergers, acquisitions, people that can't afford to buy insurance for their product. What really concerns me is the hypersensitivity of our society right now."

Murphy said his group is planning a "media blitz" this fall to tell "the truth about latex," emphasizing that it offers the best protection when compared to gloves made of other materials.

The campaign will tell people that "typically speaking, you're not going to die from a latex glove."

But North Arundel could have valid reasons for banning balloons. Last fall, some children with latex allergies at Johns Hopkins Hospital developed "problems" from simply being wheeled into an area decorated with latex balloons for an employee appreciation day, said Dr. Robert G. Hamilton, an associate professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

After the incident, Hamilton said he tried to ban balloons and told the staff member who oversees all floral deliveries not to allow latex balloons into the hospital.

"We're also supposed to have the guards at the door checking for balloons, but there are a lot of distractions and florists come to and fro," Hamilton said. "Occasionally, I'll still see a toy balloon. When I do, I try to track down how it got in there. Generally, it's some florist who brought it in from outside."

Neall said North Arundel hasn't had any balloons smuggled in, and it plans to put up signs in the lobby informing visitors of the ban.

But visitors shouldn't despair, Neall said. Mylar balloons are still allowed. Besides, AHA's Wade said, balloons "are very nice, and while you get a temporary smile from them, they have never been proved to be an effective healing force anyway."

Pub Date: 5/06/98

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