Arachnophobia. Ophidiophobia. Acrophobia. These are the some of the most common fears people have. But for a Wilkes University sophomore, the thing that scares her most is the sound of balloons being inflated.
On Nov. 30, Ellen Weber and her roommate decided to go to the Henry Student Center Cafe for breakfast. As the two started preparing their bagels, Weber turned to see approximately 50 latex balloons being blown up.
No big deal to some, but for Weber who was diagnosed with a latex allergy at the age of 5, this was a huge concern.
Typically when a reaction occurs, Weber’s eyes will begin to itch. If she is unable to leave the area where the material is, her throat may begin to swell and close up. With her specific allergy being airborne, she does not even need contact with the material to have a reaction.
According to the American Latex Allergy Association symptoms after exposure may vary based upon severity of sensitivity. Common symptoms include skin redness, hives or welts, redness, itching or tearing eyes, chest tightness, wheezing, or shortness of breath and in rare but serious cases, Anaphylaxis shock.
As she left the building, being there no more than three minutes, Weber did not experience any of her typical symptoms so she continued to her physics class. Within 10 minutes of the exposure though, her throat began to swell and she had a difficult time swallowing.
With the help of a nearby friend, Weber made it to Health Services and had Epinephrine administered. Once her throat went back to normal, she was taken to the hospital to ensure she was fine.
After a day of rest, Weber reports that she is feeling much better. “Epinephrine gives you an adrenaline rush and Benadryl calms your system down, so having both, and a trip to the ER was enough for one day,” she said.
The ALAA reports that less than one percent of the United States population suffers from a latex allergy though health care workers and individuals with spina bifida (a congenital defect of the spine) are at a higher risk for contracting the allergy. In total, there are three types of latex allergy: IgE mediated allergic reactions (Type I) which is life threatening as the allergy is to the antibody called IgE directed against retained proteins in latex products. This type can be caused by direct skin contact, mucosal surface contact or inhalation. The second, Cell mediated contact dermatitis (Type IV) is limited to the skin where contact occurs with rubber products. The final type, Irritant dermatitis which occurs in individuals who use rubber products frequently and is not triggered by an immune system sensitivity.
Weber has figured out just what she needs to do to ensure her safety at all times and the university has also aided in making sure the campus is not a health hazard.
“I carry dissolvable Zyrtec and an Epipen at all times on my person. I also have to constantly be aware of my surroundings. Malls and grocery stores are notorious for having latex balloons, hospitals have gradually gone latex free. My plan of action when I see balloons is typically, if I can get away from the area, I hold my breath and move quickly… Two, take Zyrtec. Three, as I found out, Epinephrine is a lifesaver, literally. And so if I need it, I inject the Epipen into my thigh.”
The university has been working with Weber to make the campus is latex free and input a plan of action so it doesn’t happen again. “Not every school I have been in has been so accommodating. The university is working on an action and prevention plan/policy regarding latex as well as working on continually educating faculty, staff and students,” Weber said.
“Mrs. Katy Betnar, who is Director of the University College Learning Center, reaches out to key groups on campus (admissions, food services, alumni, department chairs, residence life, lab managers, etc.) to inform them that we have a student on campus with a severe latex allergy and to avoid the use of latex balloons on campus,” said associate dean of student affairs and student development Philip Ruthkosky. “ With that said, there are so many different groups and organizations on campus that put on activities; so we all need to keep that in mind and make education on the matter an ongoing effort.”
Because the balloons were popped on the second floor of the Henry Student Center, Weber is unable to enter the building until the latex particles dissipate as the rapid release of particles in such a closed spaced ultimately makes the building a “death trap” for her. Weber plans to avoid the building until the following week before she goes back.
In avoiding such an essential part of the campus, plans had been put in place so Weber could still get her meals. Student Affairs has also began making plans on education and awareness.
“The prevalence, and severity, of latex allergies has been growing steadily for several years,” said chief risk and compliance officer Justin Kraynack. “The University has protocols (sciences, dining services, facilities, etc) for accommodating community members with latex sensitivities. Currently, we are developing an awareness campaign with the help of the ALAA. The goal is to create a strategy of educating the campus community of latex sensitivities and to promote the use of non-latex products where possible.”
While she remains very candid and open about her allergy, Weber admits that there is a lot of other difficulties she faces that others may not be keen to.
“Some people fear spiders, the thing I fear most is the sound of balloons being inflated.”
Latex products, public health hazard when in unknowing places
While changes have been made overtime to remove latex products from public places including hospitals, many individuals are unaware of just how common the material is. ALAA reports explain that some of the most common products that include latex are: gloves, balloons, condoms, bandages, blood pressure cuffs, erasers, rubber bands, spandex, and stethoscope tubing.
Weber explains that events that others take for granted like festivals, birthday parties and even car dealerships are hazardous for her to enter.
“Think of all the places they see latex: car dealers, grocery stores, birthday parties, parades, festivals, events, jewelry stores, malls, etc. It is difficult living in today’s world because I always have to worry about it,” Weber said. “I also cannot be fully independent since I can’t buy my own groceries sometimes, or ever get my own car, also birthday parties for kids friends if I have a family someday.”
Along with man-made materials, there is also natural latex which is found in some foods like, banana, avocado, chestnut, kiwi, apple, carrot, celery, papaya, potato, tomato and melons.
The ALAA has made efforts to ensure safety to those with the allergy in the food-service industry as well as cross contamination can occur when latex gloves are worn in food preparation as well as foods which naturally contain it.
States such Rhode Island, Oregon, Arizona, Massachusetts and Wisconsin have laws or food codes banning latex glove use in food service.
In a fact sheet by Angela M. Fraser, Ph.D., associate professor food safety specialist from the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences at North Carolina State University, in compliance with the Extension Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, regulations on glove ware in the food-service industry have been regulated so that non-latex gloves are available to employees and that they be changed every four hours or sooner is a tear occurs of the worker is handling raw poultry.
“Learning about the risks associated with latex allergies is beneficial to everyone, not just here at Wilkes,” Kraynack. “Two organizations provide a vast amount of information on the subject are ALAA and Allergy & Asthma Network.”