Ho Che Cheong


Hevea natural rubber (NR) latex has been the only feedstock for medical glove manufacturing for a long time until the issue of rubber latex protein allergy emerged in the late 1980s when a dramatic surge in the use of and increased exposure to medical barrier device made from natural rubber latex triggered the onset of the increased instances of allergy to rubber proteins, in particular to sensitized users. This was brought about by the outbreak of the pandemic AIDS/HIV and a mandatory use of infection control in healthcare environment.  The frantic search for a suitable alternative to Hevea latex ensued in the 1990s when more cases of allergy to NR proteins were reported in the developed economies where gloves were extensively used as a barrier device.

Since synthetic polymers were already widely used in many applications, it was natural to search for synthetic latex that can mimic the properties of NR in glove applications. Unfortunately there was no synthetic latex found to be suitable for dipping to produce a functional glove piece in the beginning (late 1980s). Synthetic latex was not made for dipping purpose and the polymer making up the latex particles did not form elastic film that can meet the application requirement of a barrier against infection. The closest was acrylonitrile butadiene (NBR) latex. However examination gloves made from this latex was far inferior in properties compared to NR gloves. The ensuing next three decades, manufacturers of NBR latex have modified and improved the properties of the NBR latex to a remarkable level thereby narrowing the gap between the properties of preferred NR glove and those of a non-Hevea alternative.  At the same time several synthetic latexes made up elastomers such as polychloroprene, cis-polyisoprene and more recently thermoplastic elastomers such as SIS have emerged which mimic the properties of NR gloves but none are able yet to match the superior properties of NR gloves.

This presentation provides a brief review of the development of new latex materials suitable for glove dipping and possessing the necessary pre-requisites in barrier application; the intense search for benign alternatives of rubber chemicals to replace those obnoxious and toxic conventional accelerators and biocides; the trend of employing eco-friendly processing and increased use of automation in processing, including energy conservation and efficient usage, minimizing waste water generation and increased effort in water recycling; greater emphasis on material conservation and thinner gloves; greater  productivity via innovation in dipping-line design for faster chain speed and maintaining zero rejects.  The impact of digital revolution and Industry 4.0 on latex dipping industry will be briefly described.

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