Ellen Heilman has been living with a latex allergy since she was 5 — a worsening sensitivity that can leave her struggling to breathe if there’s a rubber band, balloon or latex glove nearby.
“It got to the point where I really couldn’t leave my house safely. At 21 years old, that was not cool,” Heilman, a graduate student who is now 22 and lives in Odenton, Maryland, told TODAY.
“I used to be on high alert all the time, always looking over my shoulder: Where are the balloons? Where are the gloves? I’m not safe anywhere. Now, I know that he has my back, that we are a team and that together, we’ll find it and we’ll be safe.”
He is Francis, a 3-year-old service dog trained to detect natural rubber latex and alert Heilman to its presence. The black lab goes with her everywhere, from Target to class, sniffing for the allergen as they enter the building or room.
His highly-sensitive nose can recognize latex through cabinet seams and under doors. If Francis detects it, he sits down in a distinct way that Heilman recognizes right away. Depending on the situation, the latex object is either taken away or Heilman leaves the area.
“I went from being able to go nowhere to being pretty much able to go anywhere,” she said. “It’s a huge difference … it makes things so much better for me.”
Demand on the rise
Dogs have been trained to help people with peanut allergies for years. There are even gluten-sniffing canines.
But their role in latex detection has been rare, though it’s definitely on the rise, said Ciara Gavin, founder of Allergen Detection Service Dogs, a facility in Colorado Springs, Colorado, that provided Heilman’s canine. The business used to focus mostly on training dogs to detect peanuts.
“Lately, I’ve had a lot of calls about latex detection,” Gavin said. “People are finding out more about it. Instead of living in a hopeless kind of situation where they feel like, ‘I can’t go anywhere because of this allergy,’ they’re finding out there might be hope.”
She placed her first latex detection dog two years ago. Now, one or two of the four dogs total she places each year are latex detection dogs, usually black labs.
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Fewer than 1% of people in the U.S. have a latex allergy, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. But that proportion rises to 8-12% among health care workers who are exposed to latex gloves or medical products containing the substance, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration noted.
People can react when they breathe in latex fibers in the air or touch latex in objects such as condoms, handbags, athletic shoes, tires, waistbands, rubber toys, baby bottles and pacifiers.
Symptoms can include hives, itching, wheezing, a runny nose, chest tightness and difficulty breathing. They can be part of anaphylaxis, a severe, whole-body life-threatening allergic reaction.
The allergy usually develops after many previous exposures to latex, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. Studies have called it “a growing disease that can occur at any age.”
A dog could be 'life changing'
Amy Crawford, 47, first found out she had a latex allergy last year when she was blowing up a balloons for a children’s party.
“The next thing I know, I can’t breathe, my face is just swollen and red, and covered in bumps and hives. I ended up being taken to the emergency room,” Crawford, a middle school teacher in Humble, Texas, recalled.
“They told me: You have a latex allergy. Go see a doctor. Get a [medical alert] bracelet.”
Her only clue before that incident was a sensitivity to avocados, strawberries and kiwis. People with a latex allergy can also be allergic to foods that share certain proteins with latex, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.
Crawford has now been to the emergency room six times in less than a year. Exposure to latex, whether airborne or via skin contact, can cause her throat to close up to the point where she can’t swallow and has trouble breathing.
She carries an EpiPen with her everywhere she goes and wears a mask as a precaution. Crawford doesn’t travel anywhere and can’t take her two sons, ages 8 and 14, to birthday parties anymore.
She’s crowdfunding for a latex detection dog, which will cost about $17,000.
“I’m looking forward to just being able to just walk into a room, because I can’t do that now. I have to peak in and look: Are there balloons? Is there anything that could affect me?” Crawford said. “My kids are really suffering because they’re terrified all the time.”
It takes six months for a dog to be trained, Gavin said. The new owners and their canines then spend two weeks getting to know each other under the supervision of a trainer to make sure they understand each other’s signals.
The dogs are taught to sit and stare at the source of the latex. They’re at least 95% accurate, but that estimate can depend on air currents, the size of the item and where it’s located, Gavin noted.
Heilman and her service dog Francis bonded the minute they met, she recalled.
“At this point, it is kind of like we are one being. He uses his nose, I use my eyes and together we make sure I am safe,” she said.