Tag Archives: health

Choosing the right disposable glove

First, I wish to offer a caveat; I don’t write much about safety, because it’s a highly complex area, especially once you start talking about safety around chemicals. I’m not an expert, and if you are in a workplace situation, there are actual regulations, standards and laws that need to be followed. The last thing I want is someone’s sum total of knowledge about safety coming from “Eric Hart’s Props Blog.” Still, the home hobbyist may not know where to look for information, and the prop shop employee may not know what questions to ask their employer, or what their employer is responsible for providing. Thus, what follows is not a guide for choosing the right disposable glove; rather, it is a guide to what questions to ask and what information to look up to learn which disposable gloves are best for each situation. All the safety data in the world is useless if we don’t know what information we are trying to find, or even that we need to find certain kinds of information. Often, we don’t know what we don’t know.

Dozens of companies make disposable gloves, offering hundreds of combinations of materials, thicknesses and liners. You need to find the permeation data for the specific gloves you are using. This will tell you how long it takes for specific chemicals to work their way through the glove and onto your skin.

No single glove will protect you against every chemical. There were approximately 50,000,000 chemicals registered by the CAS on September 7, 2009, with more being added at the rate of twenty-five per minute. Luckily in theatre, we only use a small percentage of those chemicals. If you work at a theatre or shop in the USA that employs ten or more people (that’s counting the whole theatre, not just the prop shop), then it is subject to OSHA regulations, and your employer is required to inform you of any toxic chemicals you may be using.

As a general rule of thumb, you should be wary of rules of thumb when it comes to safety. But a good rule of thumb to follow in safety is “don’t get stuff on you, and don’t breathe anything that isn’t air.” Choosing the right glove falls under the “don’t get stuff on you” part of the rule. Gloves are necessary because many chemicals can be absorbed through the skin. Chemicals commonly used in prop shops that can be absorbed through the skin include solvents and epoxies. Solvents don’t just include pure solvents like acetone, xylol and mineral spirits, but also any product that includes solvents: spray paints, cleaners, adhesives, etc.

Another good rule of thumb is that latex gloves don’t stop any chemicals. They can keep your hands dry, and they’re great for keeping blood and other bodily fluids from getting on your hands. They’re also useful for the reverse: keeping your own sweat and oils from getting onto your work surface. But as far as working with any sort of industrial or household chemicals, they may as well be invisible.

Notice how I mentioned household chemicals above. Just because you can buy something in a grocery or drug store doesn’t make it safe to work with without proper protection. For example, many cleaners like Windex, 409 and Simple Green use a chemical called 2-Butoxyethanol. The toxic exposure level of 2-Butoxyethanol is less than that of acetone and hexane, placing it in the category of “highly toxic” chemicals. When you start looking at permeation charts for popular glove brands, you see a trend; latex gives you no protection, while neoprene and vinyl will offer only several minutes before exposure begins. If you are using anything other than nitrile, you are exposing yourself to a highly toxic chemical.

If you are using a glove and the substance is splashing or spilling onto your bare arm, it defeats the purpose. Make sure you are wearing sleeves that offer similar chemical protection, or use longer gloves.

Many chemicals we use for prop making are toxic through skin absorption. An example is any of the two-part epoxies we use: sticks of epoxy putty, five-minute epoxy glue, epoxy coatings for fiberglass and carbon fiber, epoxy resin for casting. Epoxy is a sensitizer, which means our bodies do not react to it on the first exposure. Rather, it is on the second or subsequent exposures where we develop what is essentially an allergic reaction. It can even be after decades of using a product before one reacts to it. But reaction can be severe. Here is a chilling but not uncommon description of a reaction:

Open, oozing, and itching insanity hives virtually all over my body and my eyes literally were swollen shut for a week on two separate occasions. Recovery, each time, took better than a month.

Once developed, it is not reversible, and occupational physicians may advise you to not only never use epoxy again, but none of the “two-part” chemicals in that category. No more Smooth-On products, Great Stuff, A-B foam, etc. If you make your living as a props artisan, you pretty much have to do all your molding and casting out of plaster.

It is important to note that permeation data charts tell how long it takes for a chemical to permeate through a glove. This implies that no glove will offer permanent protection; they are called “disposable” for a reason. In fact, the most a glove gets tested is for 6 hours. If you use a pair of gloves all day, don’t set them aside for the next day. In fact, you should throw the gloves away. Trying to stretch the use of a pair of gloves to save money may seem thrifty, but it is actually counter-intuitive. The same is true of any safety measures and products you use. If you use or reuse them improperly, you get the worst of both worlds; you are spending money but not keeping yourself safe. If you feel you are spending to much money on safety equipment to make props, the best solution is to stop making props. You don’t go scuba diving without an air tank. We often get in situations where the easiest solution seems to be to continue on and finish a prop; it’s late and you’ve run out of gloves, and all the hardware stores are closed, and all you need to do is get one more coat of epoxy on so it can cure by the morning and they can use the prop in rehearsal. When you get to those situations, remember this: Your goal in life is not to finish that single prop. Your goal in life is to build props for the rest of your life. Taking shortcuts now will affect your health later on. No prop in the existence of humankind has ever been more important than your health.

A good shop foreman will be consistent in his or her purchasing of disposable gloves, so you don’t have to hunt down the permeation data every time he or she buys a new brand.

In conclusion, don’t get stuff on yourself. You should know what is present in any material or substance you are working with. If it includes chemicals that can be absorbed through your skin, you need to find out what glove will offer protection from that chemical, and how long it will offer that protection. Remember that gloves from different companies may differ in their permeation data, even if all the stats on the box seem the same.


So your play needs cigarettes. Aaaah.

In most venues by now, real cigarette smoking is viewed as the next plague. The fear is that lighting a single cigarette for a few seconds in a large, well-ventilated theater, is worse than the constant outpouring of pollution from 250 million cars, 600 coal power plants, and every other industrial process. But I digress.

Even herbal cigarettes are becoming banned in many places; this is due to health reasons, moral hesitance, or simply for the fire hazard. Even if they are permitted, many people dislike them for their “marijuana-y” smell and horrible taste. Enter “e-cigarettes”.

First introduced in 2003, electronic cigarettes (“e-cigarettes”) quickly became popular for theatres stuck between the rock of smoking bans and the hard place of artistic freedom. They completely eliminate the hazard of second-hand smoke (the “smoke” is actually just water vapor), and seem to pose minimal risk to the user. However, because they are so new, our knowledge of them and their effects is in constant flux; a lot has changed just in this past year. Just last week, the FDA was blocked from stopping e-cigarette shipments to the United States. This means that, for now at least, they remain unregulated but legal to use here.

The FDA has been railing against electronic cigarettes since last July, when they released a study. What’s important to take away from their results is not that e-cigarettes are necessarily dangerous, but that their potential dangers are unstudied, and without regulation their ingredients may not be fully disclosed. In one article, we find that:

  • All but one of the cartridges was marked as having no nicotine when they actually contained the addictive substance.
  • The cartridges that were marked as having low, medium, or high amounts of nicotine actually have varying amounts of nicotine.
  • One of the cartridges tested positive for having a toxic antifreeze ingredient, diethylene glycol.
  • The devices were emitting “tobacco-specific nitrosamines which are human carcinogens.”
  • The devices were also emitting tobacco-specific impurities that are suspected of being harmful to humans.

(Health News, FDA Warns Against E-Cigarettes)

When we use e-cigarettes, we choose the “zero-nicotine” cartridges. What’s troubling in this report is that even these might contain nicotine. The danger is not necessarily the nicotine; nicotine is not one of the ingredients in cigarettes which causes cancer, and is not toxic in the amount found in cigarettes (read more about the complicated toxicology of nicotine). The danger comes from the possibility of mislabeled products. An actor on the nicotine patch (or other smoking cessation therapy involving nicotine) who smokes an e-cigarette under the false assumption that it contains no nicotine can overdose. I overdosed when I was on the patch, and it was painful, ugly, and frightening. Secondly, mislabeling the amount of one ingredient draws concern that other, more dangerous ingredients, are left unlisted.

A second article from last July adds:

Scott Ceretta is a respiratory therapist and works with the American Lung Association in Tucson. He explains, “First off is the safety. The manufacturer of this product claim that it’s safe and only has nicotine and doesn’t have the harmful chemicals found in tobacco. But, again, we’ve been lied to before.” Dr. Scott Leischow of the Arizona Cancer Center in Tucson says it’s likely e-cigarettes are less harmful than cigarettes with tobacco. But, he adds they haven’t been adequately tested here. Dr. Leischow tells News 4, “We don’t know, this propylene glycol that the nicotine is mixed in, we don’t know what happens when a person inhales that over a long period of time.”

(KVOA News 4, Investigating the health of e-cigarettes)

Again, it’s not that e-cigarettes are dangerous; but a lack of testing so far cannot prove what effects they have on the human body. You can read the full report of FDA analysis (pdf) for more information which includes a diagram of how an e-cigarette works. They tested the “Njoy e-cigarette” and “Smoking Everywhere Electronic Cigarette” brands.

In response to the FDA’s study, Exponent Health Sciences carried out their own analysis. They found a number of flaws in the study, mostly relating to the amounts of chemicals not listed in the ingredients, and how they relate to FDA-approved nicotine replacement therapy products. In some cases, the disparities between the listed and actual ingredients which caused the FDA such great concern was less severe than in products they actually approve of.  Exponent was commissioned by the Njoy company, but the two companies are separate and discrete entities.

Let’s assume that the labels are correct. How does propylene glycol affect us? Here is an article from 1942:

Propylene glycol is harmless to man when swallowed or injected into the veins. It is also harmless to mice who have breathed it for long periods. But medical science is cautious—there was still a remote chance that glycol might accumulate harmfully in the erect human lungs which, unlike those of mice, do not drain themselves. So last June Dr. Robertson began studying the effect of glycol vapor on monkeys imported from the University of Puerto Rico’s School of Tropical Medicine. So far, after many months’ exposure to the vapor, the monkeys are happy and fatter than ever.

(Time Magazine, Medicine: Air Germicide)

We should of course be skeptical of a science article from 1942. DNA had not even been discovered yet, and cigarettes were still endorsed by doctors. Still, propylene glycol is used in many theatrical fog machines and hazers, and the dangers are known and their use regulated by Actors’ Equity. The concern over propylene glycol in e-cigarettes was described in ACTS FACTS last August after the FDA’s report was released:

Our concern is that, like the theatrical fog machines which also contain propylene glycol, this chemical will dissociate into toxic chemicals do when the e-cigarette heats or burns them. Since good actors can carry off the deception without inhaling, e-cigs still appear safer than real cigarettes for both the smokers and others on stage.

(ACTS FACTS, Monona Rossol, Editor. August 2009. www.artscraftstheatersafety.org)

They then return to my earlier point about accurate labeling:

But these points are moot if Chinese manufacturers cannot assure us that they can keep diethylene glycol and carcinogens out of e-cigs. At this point we have no advice and await further data.


So Equity, for the most part allows them at this point (though some say they’ve had problems).

Since the rules seem to be changing so fast these days, and local laws differ vastly, you can’t be assured of anything. Look at the legal status of e-cigarettes around the world, and you can see how the USA is one of the few countries that still allows them. Also, understand that that list is probably out of date already. Before you drop a hundred or so dollars on an e-cigarette system, check with both your Actors’ Equity representative and production manager whether they are still allowed in your theater for your production. Make sure your actor understands that inhalation is not necessary for the effect and should be limited or avoided as much as possible. Finally, try to find the most reputable brand you can to avoid the problem of dishonest labeling. You should do all this the first time someone mentions they’d like to have one of the characters smoking on stage. For now, as long as we have fog machines, pyrotechnics, flying rigs, stage firearms and other dangerous devices on stage, I believe the monitored use of e-cigarettes can be safely regulated.