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Rubber Bill Bounces

Bill to ban latex gloves in food service demoted

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Going out for dinner shouldn't involve your mouth blistering. But that's the risk some sufferers of extreme latex allergies run each time they head to a restaurant.

Among those who live with the possibility is Sue Lesica, who developed a severe allergy to latex from the gloves she wore while working as a medical technologist in Wisconsin.

Now, she's pushing to ban the use of latex gloves in food service, but state officials don't feel there's enough science behind her claims that even minute amounts of latex transferred during food preparation is enough to hurt allergy sufferers.

Recently, a proposed bill to ban latex gloves in restaurants was downgraded to a resolution promising discussions between the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare and restaurant owners.

"Without the support of the state epidemiologist, we didn't feel we could do a bill," said Boise Democrat Rep. Margaret Henbest, who co-sponsored the bill.

The issue of latex gloves was originally set to be heard several weeks ago, but was held up thanks to an unexpectedly long debate over registration for both midwifes and naturopaths. These two issues sucked up much of the committee's time and as a result, other issues may not be heard this session, including new definitions of pharmacists and a requirement for companies that sell human tissue for transplant to register with the state.

The watered-down bill is a letdown for Lesica, who believes the problem is larger than most realize.

"When I first [started] having problems, I just thought I was having seasonal allergies," she said. "Lots of people are impacted by latex allergies, but don't know they're being impacted."

Between 1 and 6 percent of the general population is estimated to be sensitive to the proteins found in latex, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The rate rises to 8 to 12 percent for health-care workers.

Lesica was among the first group of medical workers who began having reactions to the gloves they were using. She had to leave her job as a consequence of the allergy and has since focused on raising awareness of the issue. It's taken on greater importance for her since both of her daughters suffer from the same allergy to the degree that her youngest daughter could not attend school events where latex balloons would be present.

Since Lesica left her former profession, the medical industry has changed the specifications of the gloves it uses, requiring low-protein, dust-free gloves, reducing the effects on workers.

But Lesica argues that the older style of gloves are still being used by people outside of the medical industry, and their use in the restaurant industry is harmful to the public.

And many of those affected by latex allergies may not even realize it since the symptoms can be blamed on other causes.

"It seems like the worst food poisoning experience you've ever had," Lesica said.

Three states, Oregon, Arizona and Rhode Island, have banned latex gloves, and others require restaurants post the use of the gloves.

In Idaho, though, they are common since state law prohibits bare-hand contact with ready-to-eat food, and no notification is required.

Patrick Guzzle, food protection project manager in the Office of Epidemiology and Food Protection, within Health and Welfare, said it took years for the state to pass the ban on bare-hand contact, and his department still struggles with compliance.

For most restaurant owners, the answer is inexpensive latex gloves, although the CDC recommends anyone not dealing with hazardous materials, especially food-service workers, use an alternative, including vinyl gloves.

For Guzzle and others with Health and Welfare, it's not an argument about whether latex allergies are a reality, but if latex particles in food can be harmful.

"No one disputes there's a latex allergy in topical use," he said.

But for him, that's an occupational safety question for the workers wearing the gloves, something not regulated by his department.

Guzzle calls it a "breakdown in the science," since most of the evidence supporting Lesica's claims is anecdotal, and the state has no way of tracking any cases.

"We don't have any accurate numbers," he said. "The vast majority of people don't report food-borne illness."

Lesica has been talking to officials with Health and Welfare for three years and said they were the ones who encouraged her to find the support of a state legislator and write a bill.

Reps. Henbest and Sue Chew, a Boise Democrat, agreed to co-sponsor the bill, but Health and Welfare came out against the proposed legislation—much to Lesica's surprise.

"It was shocking they had these concerns and never mentioned it," she said.

But Guzzle said he did bring up those very issues with Lesica, and said they never recommended the legislative route.

While the department fought the ban, Health and Welfare officials agreed to the terms of the resolution before the House Health and Welfare Committee ever heard the issue.

The current plan of action revolves around the annual meeting of the Food Safety Advisory Committee, a volunteer group of representatives from various health districts, the food industry and the University of Idaho.

Guzzle said the group, scheduled to meet next month, will review literature on the issue before issuing a recommendation.

Overall, Chew said she was pleased with the outcome of the issue.

"We're really happy with this," she said. "We did a lot of research in terms of where everything is right now. Oregon is really progressive, but we're not sure if it's really supported in terms of evidence."

Chew said she prefers the collaborative approach the resolution offers to the mandate the bill would have forced. She doesn't expect to see the issue come back to the Legislature unless changes in state code are needed.

"Things are where they need to be," she said.

Lesica hasn't give up her fight for greater restrictions.

"This issue has to be dealt with, and it has to be dealt with state by state," Lesica said. "When you're guarding public health, it's better to err on the side of caution."

In the meantime, Lesica is planning to start a Boise-based support group for latex-allergy sufferers to raise awareness of the issue. The group will have its first meeting on March 31, and anyone interested is asked to e-mail Lesica at lesica@cableone.net.

Guzzle said he understands the concern.

"I don't know what's going to happen with this," he said. "We'll see where we end up."

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