03 February 2008

"Like snapping at flies": the rubber librarian hears from the condom makers

Once again Winnipeg is experiencing that most rigorous of winter's many onslaughts, a cold snap. It's so cold there's an air of conspiracy about it, because it doesn't seem real. On the other side of my frosted-up window it's as cold as a campground privy on the dark side of Pluto. Lip-crinkling, flesh-withering, molecule-slowing winds that seem to have blown across the vacuum of space before reaching us, testing the lower depths of the Kelvin scale. With weather like this it is perhaps appropriate to return to the troubling question that has concerned the public health authorities here. What effect does Winnipeg's cold weather have on latex condoms?

I have an update to my two previous posts about this issue. In my last post I reported on the initial response from the condom manufacturer to the question whether condoms can be stored safely in the cold.

Here is that first reply that came to public health officials:

Latex condoms are made of natural polyisoprene, 99+%, with trace amounts of residual vulcanization chemicals. This is a stable organic polymer and contains no water. As well, there are no mixtures or emulsions. As such, there is nothing in a latex condom to be affected by cold temperatures. Indeed, a sealed, opaque packaged condom place [sic] in a cold environment may well be preserved.

Problems may occur in the thawing process if extra heat is added. Should condoms freeze, they must be left to thaw gradually at room temperature.
A follow-up email was sent to the company asking why, if this is the case, cartons of condoms purchased in bulk bear printed instructions not to store their contents in extreme heat or cold. The carton warning reads: "Store at room temperature. Protect latex condoms against prolonged periods of exposure to: extreme low or high temperatures, moisture, direct sunlight, fluorescent light."

There certainly is sufficient research to support all the other warnings. But the fruitless search I did for the Healthy Sexuality and Harm Reduction department of the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority showed that the risk of extreme cold to the physical integrity of the condoms is still unknown. Yet we have a printed warning about exposure to extreme cold printed on every box of condoms manufactured in a southern American state where cold normally means how you like your tea. The cryogenic frigidity of a Prairie winter is not even conceivable where these condoms are made. One begins to juggle with the questions that pop up. What, then, would warrant the printed warning on the condom packages? What exactly is the nature of the risk so obliquely referred to. Is it a risk to the plastic wrap or the condom lubricant? What rationale, we must ask the manufacturers, is there for this warning?

Perhaps this left them with too many balls in the air, for it was only after a considerable delay that a reply was finally received from a spokesperson:
Please forgive the delay in responding to your inquiry but I took the time to review it with the regulatory officials in case anything had changed since my last investigation into this matter.

The warning against prolonged cold is just a precaution. There is nothing about cold that will harm the latex as long as the condoms are thawed before use. Extreme cold can make latex hard and brittle, just as it does many items. We have no literature references immediately at hand for you on this subject, but we have tested frozen condoms in the past and we have laboratory data to sustain this claim [data not supplied].

The warning against prolonged heat and light exposure is NOT just a precaution. Both will shorten the life of condoms and ultimately destroy them. Heat is used in accelerated aging protocols. A [sic] opened condom exposed to light will be compromised in a [sic] little as a week. As you mentioned, there is literature available to sustain this claim.

The moisture warning is for the boxes and film only as moisture has no impact on the condom itself. The box, however must remain intact to help protect against light and temperature fluctuation.

Plastic wrap for condoms is fine for the shelf life of condoms, as long as the seals are intact. There is absolutely no cause for concern regarding the plastic film.

Films and especially seems [sic] can suffer water damage. Condoms that have been flooded could be compromised if the seems [sic] of the films or foils are not intact or have been damaged and water may have infiltrated. Again, we have no literature references immediately at hand for you on this subject but such incidences have occurred.

I regret that I am unable to provide the literature you were hoping to receive. Until Health Canada mandates manufacturers to test for these specific issues, I doubt that any such literature will be made available.
Speaking out of both sides of their mouth and saving both their faces, the condom manufacturers claim to have "tested frozen condoms in the past." But at present they "have no literature references immediately at hand" on this subject. At the same time, they do have "laboratory data to sustain this claim." However, they are unable "to provide the literature you were hoping to receive." The warning against prolonged cold is "just a precaution" they tell us. (Against what?) And they will take no steps to release existing data, conduct any further research, or answer any more questions about this matter unless forced to by government regulators.

As a society we place a great deal of trust in manufacturers of products designed to keep us and our children safe. One would think that a respected condom manufacturer would have resorted to keeping fewer balls in the air and taken slightly more time and effort to respond to an honest question from a public health official. Why not condescend to show some interest in what is after all an interesting and challenging query? To start with, why not share the so-called laboratory data? Who are the "regulatory officials" who were consulted? Why no promise of cooperation in referring the question to Health Canada? Trying to get a decent answer from Condoms & Co. is like snapping at flies. The answer we finally get leaves such a bad taste, it's like we actually swallowed one.

Note: The opinions stated in this post are entirely my own and do not necessarily represent those of the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.