In 1953 a Manchurian entrepreneur conceived a design for vinyl gloves intended as a protective work glove. His product was thick but allowed for more dexterity than other work gloves available at the time.
Fast forward four-plus decades later.
Vinyl disposable gloves started to show up in the food service industry in the mid-1990s, but they weren’t the work glove type first invented. Since then, a watered-down version of vinyl gloves have captured at least half of that market which equates to some fifteen billion gloves per year. Disposable vinyl gloves remain an accepted choice due to their low cost.
What are food prep/food-service gloves supposed to do?
Primarily they are worn to prevent cross-contamination. Secondarily, they provide a degree of protection to the wearer from light abrasions and some chemicals.
Well-known fast food franchises have their employees wear vinyl gloves. The list includes McDonalds, Wendy’s, and Burger King.
While vinyl gloves may reduce cross-contamination from the outside, they also introduce something that was not initially recognized. As early as 2000, Japanese researchers found that a chemical used in the manufacture of these gloves to soften them (called phthalates) can leach into food.
For this reason, in 2001, Japan banned the use of vinyl gloves for handling food. The European Union followed suit in 2008.
Since then, subsequent research studies have highlighted the same concern, phthalates leaching into food.
Chemical Watch (a leading independent watchdog) published an article in 2019. It focused on a call from a group of US NGOs (non-governmental organizations) for McDonalds to make a public commitment to cease using vinyl gloves.
Looking further into the properties of vinyl gloves, other negatives come to light.
Vinyl gloves are susceptible to pinholes, microscopic openings in the material that allow contaminants to penetrate. This is particularly true when the softeners are added because the softeners cause the material to micro-fracture. Tiny holes let tinier things through. It’s something like using chicken wire to screen-out hornets.
Food Safety Magazine published an article in 2019 citing studies detailing the vulnerability posed by micro-punctures in vinyl gloves. “Vinyl disposable gloves (over other types) are more frequently responsible for cross-contamination events in food handling where glove type is identified.” This is due to their up to 50% failure rate.
And then there is the factor of environmental impact, now viewed as an unequivocal responsibility for manufacturer’s products. When disposing of these fifteen billion gloves, where do they go? Too often into trash bins where they find their way to landfills. But, they don’t biodegrade. Many are burned, releasing toxic chemicals. Recalling the irritating smell of burning plastic can bring this toxic effect to mind.
Seemingly though, low cost is the consideration supporting the continued use of vinyl gloves which appears to be a feeble rationale when protecting health is the whole point.
Di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate contamination of retail packed lunches caused by PVC gloves used in the preparation of foods
US NGOs push McDonald’s to end use of vinyl gloves
Vinyl vs nitrile disposable gloves