At a family cabin when my daughter was preschool-age, I took a bandage off a boo-boo on her arm and noticed red, inflamed skin where the bandage had been. Back home, I checked in with our pediatrician to see if she thought there could be a latex allergy. Unlikely, she said, but referred me to a pediatric allergist. Unlikely, he said; live your life, but call us if you notice anything else.
At her eighth birthday party, after bopping around a balloon, Kate’s throat and tongue started to swell. We sent the party guests to the basement, opened all the doors and windows (during a blizzard), threw Kate in the shower, gave her the large dose of antihistamine the nurse-line recommended, then made her stay awake into the wee hours of the night to make sure it didn’t happen again. The pediatric allergist said, yup, latex allergy.
It used to be that just doctors, nurses, dental hygienists, clowns (seriously), and children with spina bifida were high risk for latex allergies because of contact with latex gloves, balloons, or medical supplies such as shunts. Latex use in medical settings has been almost eradicated because allergists discovered that the more latex contact, the more likely individuals are to react.
Unfortunately, as latex is a cheap resource, it's become ubiquitous in products; our pediatric allergist said latex allergies are becoming the new peanut allergy in kids. It's a really scary allergy because, like COVID germs, latex particulates can linger in the air or land on food and be inhaled or ingested.
For my daughter, being in a room where balloons are or were can trigger anaphylaxis. She has to carry an Epi-pen (epinephrine injector) wherever we go. For her entire life, she will have to inquire at restaurants if latex gloves are used in the building or for food preparation anytime she eats out or goes through a drive through. (Many states ban latex gloves near food preparation, but we’ve found many managers aren’t aware of the health code.)
Because there is no cure and the more a person with severe latex allergies reacts, the lower their threshold to react next time, it's really important that we avoid situations where Kate could have a reaction. It gets challenging because latex is everywhere: tennis shoes, pencil erasers, elastic in the waistband of your drawers, rubber bands, dodge balls, tires, etc. Balloons and powdered latex gloves are the biggest risk. The powder is a protein that the latex can bind to, which gives it the ability to linger in the air.
What’s this got to do with church? When your kid has a latex allergy, you start to notice that balloons are everywhere. I’m on a mission to keep them out of churches and Sunday schools. Many of us have adapted well to avoiding food allergens to keep kids safe. I am advocating the same for latex and, most importantly, to keep balloons out of your space and programming. It is really hard to tell your kid it is not safe for her to go inside her church, a place that should be life giving, not life threatening.
There are a lot of questions about why severe allergies are on the rise, but it’s most likely due to environmental factors. Latex allergies in medical workers are down since removing latex from hospitals and clinics; I hope we can protect our kids and follow suit in our faith communities.
Steps to Create a Latex-Free Church
- Have a “No Balloons” policy publicly posted. Note that your church is striving to be latex-free in your newsletter, etc.
- Make sure first aid kits are stocked with latex-free bandages and gloves (nitrile and vinyl are safe).
- Buy latex-free erasers, pencils, art supplies, gym equipment, and toys. Avoid balls with rubbery filaments and other similar toys. Purge rubber bands. Check the pencil and eraser boxes for “Latex Free.” (Ticonderoga and Target brand school supplies are usually safe choices.)