The Ominous Connotations of Flexible Plastic Tubing in the Medical Field

by Rebekah Fuller, IQS Editor

Rebekah Fuller Author Pic

Was plastic tubing on your mind the last time you were either in the hospital or visiting a loved one? I know it didn’t register in my mind…“Hey, that flexible plastic tubing is helping my grandfather breathe”…as I held his hand and prayed that the seemingly inevitable wouldn’t happen after he had his second stroke. It is interesting, though, to look back and see how plastic tubing of pliability is used in medical and surgical applications. Now that I’m not overcome with such intense emotion, I remember that the nurses had to extract mucus from my grandpa’s throat utilizing a plastic tubing suction device. This gave him a little relief from all his distress while he was unconscious and helped keep his airways open, as did the tubing inserted in his nostrils and attached to the ventilator. Being connected to this life support machine, he was made comfortable by the morphine going into his veins. They upped the dosage being conveyed through the plastic intravenous or IV tube, and he slipped away and into God’s presence soon after he was transferred to hospice.

I never gave a thought then to what those tubes were made of; they were ugly reminders that my grandpa was so unwell. That kind of small diameter clear plastic tubing does have a certain ominous connotation since it is used so much in the healthcare field. In fact, I was watching the end of Marley & Me for probably the third time, and the tubing in the corner of my TV screen caught my eye. Of course they use clear plastic medical tubing to deliver the drug to the veins of a dog being put down, but I had not identified it as such until then. The image of the vet initiating the fluid in that tube connected to that loyal Golden Retriever is the trigger for a great lump of sadness to form in one’s throat. This movie moment brings a tear to my eye, and I’m a cat person. How many movie moments can you think of that involve plastic tubing in this way? How about The Bucket List, Remember the Titans, and so on. If you want an audience to think the character is in pretty bad shape, strap on some plastic tubing and we get the idea.

Medical Tubing Clear Medical Tubing
Various medical grade tubing options from Teel Plastics, Inc.

Working for an online directory of industrial manufacturers, suppliers and distributors has made me aware of what goes into the products and processes that we rely on for life-and-death and everyday needs. The plastics used to manufacture any poly tubing are highly dependant on end use, and tubing manufacturers utilize rubber compounds as well.

Types of Medical Tubing
A variety of small diameter flexible tubing from NewAge Industries Inc.

PVC tubing, silicone tubing and latex (natural rubber) tubing are popular materials for aseptic applications, and nylon, polystyrene, ABS, polypropylene and high, low or linear low density polyethylene (HDPE, LDPE, LLDPE) are used as well. These kinds of surgical tubing are used to allow drainage, inject fluids, or as access for the surgeon’s instruments. Complete product lines include catheters, laboratory pipettes, swabs and swab sticks, prefilled syringe packaging, IV connectors and tubes, culture tubes and artificial inseminators. Without plastic tubing, the intravenous route wouldn’t be possible, and this is the fastest way to deliver fluids and medications directly to veins and throughout the body, employing a drip chamber to prevent air from entering the blood stream. Through an IV system is the only way some medications, as well as blood transfusions and lethal injections, can be given.

Angioplasty Balloon Tubing
IV drip image provided by Absolute Custom Extrusions, Inc.

Besides drain tubing, latex’s excellent elasticity and grip makes it great for elastic exercise bands and medical connector lines. Silicone has long been used for medical tubing, as it meets the industry’s requirements for cleanliness and non-toxicity, plus is inert to U.V. and radiation and remains flexible in extreme temperatures.

A rather new application for a nylon based material is angioplasty balloon tubing, which can be produced in shapes and sizes never before seen in the industry, cutting surgery and recovery time. Plastic tubes called “spacers” are essential in asthma and nicotine inhalers, offering the most efficient delivery of medication to where it is needed. I also read about how plastic catheter tubing is used to illegally pass urine drug tests, which I don’t recommend (It’s wrong, of course, and sounds quite uncomfortable, especially for men!).