Neighbors: Toxic World

Annie Jacintho had known about her daughter’s allergy since Katie was 2, when she came home from a dentist appointment with hives on her face wherever someone had touched her with latex gloves.

But Jacintho, a nurse, didn’t realize how latex would change her daughter’s life until a birthday party a few years later. Even though Katie didn’t play with any balloons, she started breaking out in hives wherever she touched a child who had. Then a magician started blowing up balloons and releasing the air into the room.

“My daughter complained about her throat feeling funny,” Jacintho wrote in an email. “I didn’t even carry Benadryl at that time. We left the party immediately and she cried all the way home. She was only 5.”

Katie wouldn’t be able to go to any more birthday parties.

Today, Jacintho, whose daughter is now 16, is hoping to raise awareness about the increasingly common disorder by starting a support group on Maui, and by asking Gov. Neil Abercrombie to recognize Oct. 6-12 as Latex Allergy Awareness Week.

One of the biggest challenges faced by people with latex allergy is a lack of understanding about the condition – often even by medical professionals, she says.

“It’s not just gloves, it’s not just a contact allergy – it’s more severe than that.”

Natural rubber latex is used as an ingredient in as many as 40,000 commonly used products, according to the American Latex Allergy Association. An allergic reaction can be triggered by touching an item containing latex, eating food that has been contaminated by latex particles (from a wrapper or a glove), or even breathing in latex particles as dust.

“It’s kind of a spooky thing, because latex is everywhere,” Jacintho says. “If you’ve just been diagnosed with it and you start researching it, it’s overwhelming. It freaks you out.”

Jacintho says the family struggled for years to understand why her daughter felt sick all the time, until they realized latex was used in the threads of her jeans, socks, nightgowns and even her underwear. Now, Jacintho sews many of Katie’s clothes, making her cotton bathing suits and adding a thick cotton binding to cover the elastic in her socks.

“It helps that I sew,” she says.

Going out to eat is also a challenge. Even if a restaurant doesn’t use latex gloves during food preparation, Katie could get sick if latex gloves were worn by the cleaning crew the night before – traces of the protein could be left behind on tabletops and cooking surfaces, cross-contaminating the food.

Even medical professionals may not understand the severity and sensitivity of the condition. Katie recently had to go to the Maui Memorial Medical Center emergency room (which is latex free) after suffering a severe reaction at her orthodontist’s office.

When Jacintho later told the orthodontist what happened and warned him that it wasn’t enough to simply remove his latex gloves and put on latex-free gloves right before treating Katie, “he told me he didn’t want my daughter walking in his office again, and accused her of being overly sensitive,” Jacintho wrote in an email.

The family has since found a new orthodontist, but “even though they were latex-free, they were surprised that it is not only the gloves we have to be concerned about,” Jacintho wrote.

Jacintho hopes that by raising awareness about latex allergy, more businesses, restaurants and medical offices will understand how dangerous the condition is and learn about how they can go latex-free. She says she would like to work with the state Department of Health to create a brochure educating people about latex and how to avoid it.

She also hopes to share information with other latex sufferers. Connecting online with a California-based support group last year was an important resource for learning more about what kinds of products to avoid, and how to survive in a latex-covered world.

“A couple of years ago, before I found the support group, it was very bad – just because we didn’t know why Katie was always feeling bad,” Jacintho says. “But it’s better now, and that’s why I want to help – to make people aware that they’re not alone.”

* Ilima Loomis is a Maui-based writer and editor. Do you have an interesting neighbor? Tell us about them at Neighbors and “The State of Aloha,” written by Ben Lowenthal, alternate Fridays.