Latex glove controversy clouds Koop testimony

Ex-surgeon general consulted with glove maker

Debate over the hazards of latex gloves developed a new twist of controversy when The New York Times reported that former U.S. surgeon general C. Everett Koop, MD, failed to disclose a lucrative financial arrangement with a latex glove maker when he testified in Congress about glove safety.

Koop told the oversight and investigations subcommittee of the Committee on Education and the Work Force that hazards of latex gloves among health care workers had been exaggerated, provoking a "borderline hysteria."

In its Oct. 29 edition, The New York Times reported that Koop had signed a four-year, $1 million contract with glove manufacturer WRP Corp. of Itasca, IL, in 1994 to deliver speeches on health and nutrition and to serve as a company adviser. The company briefly considered entering the nutrition market, then decided not to pursue that line of business. Koop ultimately received $656,250 in consulting fees, the newspaper reported, citing Securities and Exchange Commission documents and an unnamed source at WRP.

At a press conference a day after the article was published, Koop remarked that his contract was actually with a company called NBF that was later acquired by WRP. "I never consulted with them about latex gloves. I never consulted with them about anything," Koop told reporters. "As a matter of fact, I began to feel very guilty that I was taking a consulting fee for not doing anything at all."

Koop stressed the protection that latex gloves have provided in the wake of the AIDS epidemic. "I’m very sorry for the people who are allergic to latex, but inasmuch as I spent four years of my life trying to put a thin layer of latex between the whole world and the AIDS virus, I guard that very carefully," he said.

Powdered latex gloves in particular have come under scrutiny because the protein mixes with the powder and can become airborne, leading to potentially serious reactions among those who are allergic to the protein — even if they are not wearing the gloves.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health issued a safety alert in 1997 advising that if latex gloves are used, they should be powder-free and low-protein. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration released a technical bulletin recommending that hospitals use powder-free, low-protein latex gloves and provide non-latex alternatives for health care workers and patients who are allergic to natural rubber latex.

Meanwhile, hundreds of lawsuits are pending against latex glove manufacturers from health care workers and others who say they were harmed by severe allergic reactions. (See Hospital Employee Health, November 1999, p. 126.)

Still, those who represent health care workers worry that Koop’s comments carried great influence in support of latex gloves.

"Dr. Koop has been a leader in communicating about health issues in this country, a very effective communicator," says Susan Wilburn, RN, MPH, senior specialist for occupational safety and health with the American Nurses Association in Washington, DC.

"When Dr. Koop says, as he did in Congress, that latex allergy is not a serious problem and nurses are hysterical and it’s been blown out of proportion, it confers some weight," she says. "Some people are at the very least confused about what they’re hearing from various experts."