Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Home Grown Latex: Allergy Free!

By Jen Long

Did you know that processed sap from rubber trees is our second largest raw material import? Second only to petroleum in import size, we use this product in everything from building supplies to latex gloves. Natural rubber is present in so many of our everyday objects that we don't give its source a second thought. Ironically, because of its myriad presence and usefulness, our population has a growing allergy response to the proteins in the latex.

During WWII, the powerful demand for this Asian natural resource put our country in a compromised position. To offset the latex shortage, we turned to an interesting plant that could be grown in the American Southwest, a lowly shrub called guayule (pronounced "why yoo lee"). A natural rubber was processed from the guayule bark. One ton of latex could be harvested from one acre of land. However, at the end of the war with world latex crops once again accessible, the demand for domestic guayule dissipated and guayule cultivation came to an end.

But in recent years, scientists and businessmen have once again investigated the potential of our domestic guayule, this time with an eye to a very interesting property: The latex from the guayule plant is free of allergy producing proteins.

Latex allergies are no laughing matter. With symptoms ranging from skin reactions and hay fever-like nose dribbles to life-threatening anaphylactic shock, queries about latex allergies are routine questions in any medical setting. Latex allergies have caused reputable environments such as Johns Hopkins to become entirely latex free for the long-term safety of their patients and staff.

In the'80s, growing public health awareness of HIV proliferated the use of latex gloves. With that proliferation came the consequential allergies. Traditional latex gloves offer dexterity and tactile sensitivity but there are now good alternatives such as nitrile or neoprene gloves which can replicate these qualities without compromise. Despite this, the thought of producing allergy-free latex medical supplies from a domestic crop remains intriguing.

It turns out that the guayule bush has a lot more going for it than just its allergy free latex. Processing the latex from the plant only requires the use of pure water, no chemicals or environmentally threatening solvents. Being a desert native, it requires very little water for its cultivation and it does not compete for food crop acreage. Guayule is a perennial which ensures years of harvesting from a single planting. It is naturally resistant to insects and blight. The pulp that is left over after latex extraction which is called bagasse has many bio fuel possibilities. Guayule is indeed a little plant with big potential.

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