Are Your Cannabis-Handling Gloves Clean? Possibly Not
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The sale of legal cannabis and cannabis-related products continues to rise in the US and overseas. One Global X reported a 15% increase, or $37 billion more in sales in 2023 alone. As the number of US states legalize the use of recreational cannabis products – now up to 23 in all – the domestic market now reportedly accounts for more than 80% of global legal demand. That’s equivalent to nearly $40 billion in sales – a phenomenal number, unthinkable for many people just a decade ago.
But with this proliferation in sales comes an increase of another kind, risk. The supply chains that make up cannabis cultivation and processing operations, from planting to product sales, have become much more complex. And this raises the risk of cross-contamination from a source not typically considered a major threat to health and safety: the nitrile gloves that are required personal protective equipment (PPE) for those who work in the cannabis industry. Not only can cross-contamination lead to health-related concerns, but the threat also extends to product recalls that can be costly to bottom line financials, as well as reputation.
As a major supplier of nitrile gloves in the cannabis industry, these threats led us at Eagle Protect to embark on a multi-year study to detect cross-contamination at the microbial level. Our own independent glove testing, carried out by leading biologists at the B. Michaels Group, conducted metagenomic tests on 26 different brands of single-use disposable gloves – all new and right out of the box. Of the 2,800 gloves tested, what was discovered was far worse than expected, as fecal indicators were found to be present on the interior and exterior surfaces of up to 50% of the gloves. Many harmful yeast species and distinct genera of fungi were also identified, including Penicillium, Cladosporium, and Aspergillus.
There have already been a couple of recent high-profile product recalls due to cross-contamination in cannabis operations. In one case, the culprit was found to be ortho-phenylphenol (OPP), a fungicide. But the largest cannabis recall in Michigan history occurred due to flower contamination with Aspergillus, a fungal pathogen. Pathogenic contamination is the second most frequent cause of cannabis-related recalls.
As with any disturbing report on the potential for cross-contamination in the supply chain, glove wearers are curious as to the source. How are these seemingly hygienic products tainted when they’re unused and right out of the box? It’s because glove cross-contamination occurs during the manufacturing process itself. The majority of imported nitrile glove products are produced in overseas factories, many of which don’t adhere to the same hygienic standards as in the US. Dirty water sources, polluted with agricultural fertilizers, pesticides, and human and animal waste, together with the addition of cheap toxic materials during manufacturing, are the primary sources of pathogenic and chemical contamination.
But what about consumer health and safety policies designed to prevent contamination? Shouldn’t those regulations prevent such levels of risk? They might, were they to go far enough. But under current regulations for glove imports, “Food-Compliant” gloves are not tested for bioburden, cleanliness, or performance. As it currently stands, the statutory code only references the glove product’s chemical migration standards.
Each year, more than 300 billion pairs of disposable gloves are used in the US. Now, not all glove suppliers manufacture their products in unscrupulous ways. Product vendors who employ safeguards such as routine product audits, third-party testing, product traceability, and only use quality raw materials are greatly reducing the overall threat of cross-contamination in the supply chain. If the cannabis industry were to join in with the healthcare and food-handling trade organizations in demanding better regulatory oversight, we could improve consumer health and safety, reduce the risk of cross-contamination in the supply chain, and avoid the specter of costly product recalls.
I, for one, believe it’s a cause that’s well worth the fight.