The emergence of synthetic materials as a replacement to latex in the production of condoms has at least one consumer watchdog concerned about the effectiveness and safety of the new products.
Consumers International, which represents more than 250 organizations from 115 countries, wants international testing standards implemented that at least equal those currently in place for latex condoms.
Currently, a global testing standard for synthetic condoms, which are aimed at people with latex allergies, does not exist and manufacturers must only conform to national standards, which in some countries don't exist, said Sadie Homer, standards officer for the organization. A global standard forces manufacturers to conform to a uniform rule, she said.
Representatives from Consumers International were among the approximately 150 delegates present at a mid-July International Organization for Standardization conference held in Malaysia.
Delegates represented a number of different countries, manufacturers, testing companies, scientists, doctors, researchers and consumer advocates, Homer said.
``We resolved the latex international standard issue last year,'' she said. ``And while we'd like to see that standard improved further, we clearly need an international standard for synthetic contraceptives at least as stringent as the one we have for latex.''
The acceptable breakage for latex condoms in laboratory tests is 1.5 percent, the consumer organization said, but it would like that rate dropped to about 1 percent globally.
A technical committee at the ISO conference began reviewing proposals for synthetic standards at the Malaysian conference, according to Julian Edwards, director general of London-based Consumers International.
He maintained there is some evidence that synthetic condoms presently offer less security than the latex variety, but without proper testing there's no way to know for sure.
He estimated that more than 10 billion condoms, most of them latex, are used globally each year to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancies.
Synthetic condom makers ``must meet higher standards or have their products pulled from the market,'' Edwards maintained.
``We need to know the failure rate and simply transferring the standard for latex to synthetics just won't work,'' he said. ``A number of key issues need to be addressed. I've heard that some synthetics use plastics, polyurethanes and other materials that at some stage may be mixed. That complicates the picture for standards.
``It will probably take some time to come up with a standard. But we must begin soon. Certainly, clinical trials are needed.''
Homer indicated it could take another two years to come up with an adequate universal contraceptive standard.
The next ISO meeting will be held in July 2003 and the issue likely will draw greater review then, she said, adding that because a large number of testing operations and manufacturers are represented, ``the balance isn't terribly good'' because the consumer representative is in the minority.
In the meantime, Edwards said, ``synthetics should not be marketed until a standard is in place.'' Synthetic condoms are manufactured in the U.S., Australia, Europe, South America, Japan and Southeast Asia, according to Consumers International.
At the same time, Homer said, the organization is pushing for even stronger global standards for latex condoms.
And product labeling changes are needed, Edwards said. The group would like length and circumference measurements included on packaging rather than simply medium, large and extra large listings. Consumers International also wants a reduction in the shelf life of condoms to three years from five to ensure they do not degrade.
An independent and non-profit operation founded in 1960, Consumers International supports, links and represents groups and agencies worldwide.
Its prime goals are to defend the rights of all consumers-including the poor and disadvantaged; support and strengthen member organizations and the overall consumer movement; and campaign at the international level for policies that respect consumer concerns.
It's funded by fees from member units and by grants from foundations, governments and multilateral agencies. It is not aligned or supported by any political party or industry, Edwards said.