Despite the food safety, environmental and occupational risks of vinyl disposable gloves being widely reported, they remain the most common glove used in food handling because of their perceived cheap price point. With pressures on companies to cut spending, vinyl gloves are seen as one area to keep costs at a minimum. However, we’ll explain why companies are phasing out the use of PVC (vinyl) gloves and switching to safer, healthier and more cost-effective options.
1. HUMAN HEALTH
Up to 50% of disposable vinyl gloves are made up of plasticisers, which make the PVC flexible and soft enough to wear. Often plasticisers contain phthalates and BPA as they are inexpensive. Therefore to reduce cost, many Vinyl gloves contain the phthalate plasticisers DINP (Diisononyl phthalate) and DEHP di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate. Both DiNP and DEHP have been found to adversely impact human health and have been added to the US Californian Proposition 65 list of chemicals known to cause cancer.
Phthalate plasticisers can be absorbed through worker’s skin and quickly transfer to, and contaminate products especially food products. Adverse health effects of exposure to BPA and phthalates in occupational settings is estimated to result in US$175 billion in healthcare costs.**
DEHP is under much scrutiny for its toxicity. Exposure to DEHP has been associated with adverse reproductive, neurobehavioral, and respiratory outcomes in children (Braun et al, 2013; Ejaredar at al 2015) and metabolic disease risk factors such as insulin resistance in adolescents and adults (James-Todd e al. 2012; Trasande and Attina 2015).
Diet is believed to be the main source of DEHP and other phthalates in the general population - phthalates have been shown to leach from products into the human body via ingestion, inhalation and dermal absorption (Zota et al, 2015).
As phthalate plasticisers are not chemically bound to PVC, they can easily leach and evaporate into food, particularly fatty foods such as butter, oils and meat – where they become mostly soluble. In one study by Serrano et al. 2014, foods high in fat such as dairy and meat were found to be more contaminated by high-molecular-weight phthalates that are more lipophilic, such as DEHP.
Studies conducted in Japan found that the use of disposable PVC gloves during the preparation and packaging of meals was a major source of dietary intake of DEHP (Tsumura et al 2001a). The same study also demonstrated a decline in DEHP levels in prepared meals after the ban of DEHP in PVC gloves in Japan (Tsumura et al 2003).
Bacteria and virus permeability & safety issues
Due to the molecular structure, there are associated risks that limit Vinyl glove performance and affect barrier protection. They have 3x the potential for cross-contamination versus our Eagle Sensitive nitrile gloves and are more permeable to bacteria & viruses than nitrile.
Linear molecular structure of vinyl & nitrile gloves.
Images are representations only, based on an actual molecular structure to illustrate the different capabilities of each formulation.
Studies have highlighted the lack of cross-linking of PVC molecules, causing them to separate when flexed or stretched. The effect of this is two-fold:
A poorer resistance to stretch and elongation (based on lower tensile strength and elongation tests) compared to natural latex or nitrile. Less elasticity and flexibility leads to a poorer fitting glove; with more holes occurring during routine use. Dangerously, these holes are often at the microscopic level and are an unknown which is a real safety risk.
Increased permeability to bacteria and viruses. This increases the risk of cross-contamination for both the glove user and the products they are handling.
2. ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACTS
In reaction to both the health and environmental threats of PVC, below are some of the changes to be adopted by governments and companies throughout the world to switch to safer, healthier PVC-free products:
Japan (2001) has banned PVC gloves for food handling due to the well documented adverse effects on health.
The European Union (2008) have banned the use of DEHP in food service gloves out of concern that the chemical will leach into food and be ingested.
Phthalates were banned in toys in the United States (2008) and restrictions or bans have been placed on phthalates in PVC toys in the entire European Union.
Sweden first proposed restrictions on PVC use in 1995 and is working toward discontinuing all PVC uses.
In Spain, over 60 cities have been declared PVC-free.
Germany has banned the disposal of PVC in landfills.
Healthcare institutions around the world are reducing or have removed PVC and phthalates. Hospitals are particularly concerned as several government agencies, including the FDA, have concluded that children undergoing certain medical procedures may represent a population at increased risk for the effects of DEHP.
PVC has also been described by the U.S. Green Building Council as “consistently among the worst materials for human health impacts.”
The manufacture and disposal of PVC uses or releases numerous other hazardous chemicals and carcinogens, and can include PFAS, dioxins, chlorine gas, ethylene dichloride, dioxins, mercury and asbestos.
Up to 50% of vinyl gloves rip on donning, significantly increasing glove usage and therefore waste, compared to better quality gloves.
Vinyl gloves are produced thicker and heavier in an attempt to reduce ripping, increasing waste disposal. The high failure rate (ripping) also increases glove usage and therefore waste.
3. QUALITY ISSUES INCREASE COSTS
Scientific studies have proven a 10-fold increase in average failure rates of vinyl gloves compared to nitrile gloves, after simulated use, with the average failure rate of vinyl gloves being 51%. When you take into account these failures, what seems like a cheap glove increases in price significantly; read more here.
4. FOOD SAFETY RISKS
Vinyl gloves can begin leaking as soon as they are donned - tthe PVC polymer is a rigid and weak structure, and micro-punctures can occur within a few hand movements.
An estimated 50-90% of punctures go unrecognised by glove wearers. Because “glove juice” and sweat build-up is particularly common in vinyl gloves, this results in the contamination of contact surfaces through glove holes, often so small they are unnoticed by the glove wearer.
Scientific studies have proven a 10-fold increase in average failure rates of vinyl gloves compared to nitrile gloves, after simulated use. The average failure rate of vinyl gloves was 51%.
Due to the increase in failure rate numerous studies have shown vinyl gloves have an increased permeability to bacteria and virus, increasing the risk of cross-contamination for both the glove user and the food they are handling.
Vinyl disposable gloves (over other types) are more frequently responsible for cross-contamination events in food handling where glove type is identified.
5. WORKER & CONSUMER ISSUES
Vinyl gloves are made from PVC, and are therefore poorly fitting, thick, rigid and inflexible. These factors often cause repetitive fatigue injuries and trauma to the wearer’s fingers and thumbs.
Phthalates and BPA
- Phthalates have been shown to leach from products into the human body. Exposure to DEHP has been associated with adverse reproductive, neurobehavioral and respiratory outcomes and metabolic diseases such as insulin resistance.
- DiNP and DEHP are on the Proposition 65 list of chemicals known to California to cause cancer.
- BPA is an endocrine disruptor, affecting hormones, and is linked to reproductive disorders, heart disease and cancers.
WHAT'S THE ALTERNATIVE?
Despite all the evidence against the use of vinyl disposable gloves, they are still used in New Zealand, simply, due to cost. If vinyl gloves are the only choice available for workers, we recommend them to be worn for very short periods, and not for direct food contact areas. From March 2018, Eagle Protect discontinued selling vinyl gloves due to their food safety risks, environmental impact and human health issues. We cannot in good faith recommend them to our customers as a food-safe or sustainable option, or as an option for staff wearing gloves throughout the day.
Ironically, innovative Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) suppliers such as ourselves, Eagle Protect, a certified B Corporation®, have products and processes that can replace vinyl for little or no added cost!
Modernised manufacturing technology has created thin, flexible and comfortable glove options that are just as durable as vinyl gloves. They are PVC-free and don’t contain phthalates or harmful toxins. These gloves, are an excellent economical glove choices for light food handling and industrial use. We also stock a full range of food-safe nitrile disposable glove alternatives to suit most needs.
For example, as a solution to the Covid-19 related glove shortages and price increases, we sourced an alternative and more economically priced glove, the STRETCHPoly. These FDA food complaint gloves are a superior barrier substitute for Vinyl disposable gloves, which can rip frequently resulting in more waste. Find out how to reduce the environmental impact of your gloves.
PARTNER WITH US AND SAFEGUARD WHAT MATTERS
We hope these studies will inform and change business and regulatory glove usage in the food preparation industry, while providing consumers with enough knowledge to make informed decisions and restaurant choices. Have questions about disposable gloves? Chat with a member of our team of glove experts to answer any questions you may have.
** Full details and references for all the information included here are taken from the Glove Hazard Analysis & Mitigation Strategies Research Study conducted by Barry Michaels. White Papers of this study are available upon request.