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How the AIDS Epidemic Brought a Forgotten Desert Plant Back

May 9, 2008
Since the beginning of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, members of the medical profession wear latex gloves as diligently as they do scrubs. With this increased use of protective wear, health care workers noticed more and more how the material irritated their skin and developed latex allergies.

Latex allergies are marked by itchy eyes, sneezing, coughing, rash, chest tightness, shock and life-threatening illness even. With a latex allergy, health care providers struggled for a compromise. They were uncomfortable with the gloves, possibly even ill, and without the gloves they were at a higher risk of contracting HIV. The solution: Use natural rubber latex that is hypoallergenic.

Most natural rubber latex is derived from the para rubber tree, which is referred to as hevea commonly. Because hevea is grown in tropical climates, this hevea often absorbs a variety of tropical proteins. The cause of latex allergies are these proteins. Hevea, therefore, is the world's most common source of rubber and cannot be used to produce hypoallergenic latex.

Synthetic rubber, derived from petroleum, is commonly used to produce hypoallergenic rubber. But with rising oil prices and a demand for a natural and environmentally-friendly alternative, manufacturers took another look at the guayule plant. Guayule, which grows in the southwest region of the United States and northern Mexico, is a natural source for hypoallergenic rubber because it does not contain any of the tropical proteins found in hevea.

Guayule's use as a source for hypoallergenic natural rubber is important-nearly 10 percent of the population has a hevea-based latex allergic reaction. But the guayule plant is more than just a hypoallergenic latex source-it's also a cash crop excellent for arid regions. It's so sturdy that it can grow successfully in the desert, and it doesn't require pesticides or irrigation. It also can be used as a feed stock for ethanol production.

Guayule rubber is nothing new surprisingly. To make rubber balls Native Americans used guayule. Because of a leaf blight outbreak that destroyed the rubber trees in Brazil in the 1920s, rubber was made from guayule. Because in the 1940s the war with Japan made it impossible to import rubber from Malaysia, guayule was used to produce latex. Guayule rubber was abandoned as a source of domestic rubber quickly after Brazilian trees recovered from the leaf blight and World War II ended. Lobbyists worked to keep oil-based synthetic rubber on the market and rubber producers in Southeast Asia were able to produce rubber more economically, despite guayule's natural allure.

Then, again, things changed. In response to the oil embargo beginning in the 1970s, U.S. policy makers began to look at alternatives to oil-based synthetic rubber. Once again, guayule research and development began.

Enter the 1980s when the problem with latex allergies became unavoidable because of AIDS. With the demand being so high then and still now, guayule natural rubber is an invaluable product for anyone requiring hypoallergenic products.
About the Author
About the Author: Jason Lancaster is an avid fan of emerging agricultural biotechnology. Learn more about guayule at GuayuleBlog.com.
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