Phthalates - The New Danger for Exam Gloves?

Bookmark 12/12/2007 - Written by the Medical Exam Glove team

It seems like yesterday when the medical industry was just learning about the dangers of latex allergies.  Looking at the state of things today, healthcare facilities have done a remarkable job educating their staff and finding latex-free substitutes as evidenced by the reduced reported rates.  We still have a way to go before all hospitals use latex-free exam gloves, but the number of conversions to latex-free alternatives increasing is a positive sign.  As more and more hospitals switch to synthetic alternatives, the industry is starting to raise concerns about dangers of phthalates.

What are Phthalates?

Phthalates are chemicals used in the product of PVC, which stands for polyvinyl chloride.  Phthalates are used to give certain plastic products a stretchy property to it.  As you guessed, phthalates are used in the manufacturing of vinyl examination gloves.  It is important for medical gloves to be flexible and have a soft feel so healthcare workers can properly go about their business.  With the creation of PVC, the exam glove industry was able to produce quality synthetic gloves that are extremely cost-effective.  Compared to latex or nitrile, vinyl remains the cheapest material due to lower raw material costs.  Demand for cheap synthetic medical gloves skyrocketed due to increased pressure on hospitals to move to a latex-free environment and increased pressure to control costs.  Vinyl synthetic gloves became the industry’s answer to the cheapest, latex-free synthetic glove.

The Controversy

Everyone agrees that certain phthalates, like DEHP, are harmful; however, what about the rest?  There are numerous other plasticizers like DINP, DIOP, DIBP, etc.  The list goes on and on.  Researchers have not reached a consensus that all phthalates should be treated the same way due to the lack of data.  In the past, DEHP was one of the most common plasticizers used to create polyvinyl chloride material since it is cheap.  Eventually, studies confirmed health risks associated with DEHP and manufactures shifted to alternative phthalate materials like DINP and DOP.  The health risks of alternative phthalates are still up in the air.

Phthalates & Medical Vinyl Gloves

I have had nurses ask if she should stop using vinyl gloves due to phthalate concerns and I shared my view with her.  There is no exam glove that is without health risk to everyone.  Wearing gloves is not natural and there are many chemicals that are used to manufacture gloves.  However, manufacturers are aware of this and have minimized the risks by using material that people will have minimal reactions.  It’s the same with everything you purchase… there is always a risk.  Most major glove brands (ie: Medline, Cardinal Health, Kimberly-Clark, Ansell) have switched to alternative plasticizers in their synthetic gloves and banned the use of DEHP phthalates.

Phthalate poisoning is typically caused by ingestion of material that is composed of phthalates.  In addition, tests have shown that infants are more likely to be victims of poisoning than adults.  Knowing this, we can be smart about minimizing the risks of phthalates.

If you are still concerned, you can always convert to using nitrile exam gloves to eliminate possible phthalate poisoning caused by gloves.  However, this is not cost effective for all facilities.  Another approach is to substitute the vinyl exam gloves in areas catered to infants and children like NICUs and PICUs. 

Vinyl synthetic exam gloves are still the cost effective approach for hospitals.  Given today’s technology improvements in exam gloves, vinyl gloves provide comparable protection to latex gloves and can be used in most healthcare environments.  Although the risks of phthalates are getting more attention in the media, this is primarily due to children being poisoned by swallowing pieces of plastic toys.  Good education to healthcare workers can minimize risks associated with phthalate.


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