Friday, July 1, 2011

Where Latex Begins: Rubber Tree Farms

A grove of Para rubber trees on a farm in Thailand, where their latex "milk" is collected

Having recently spent a number of days sitting at the side of someone's hospital bed I've seen enough rubber gloves to last me years, thank you. It used to be that all such hand protection was made from latex, but in our allergy-sensitive world you now sometimes see them made from nitrile.

Topics for conversation can run thin after a few days of visiting in the hospital, and one afternoon we got to talking about the gloves: how nice it would be to have the disposable glove concession for the hospital, what other uses there could be other than wearing them on your hands (you'd be surprised how many there are if you put your mind to it) - that sort of thing. Naturally, eventually it was brought up that there was another more personal use for latex that was not only more enjoyable but saved lives, if used as directed, which gave us topics to cover the rest of the afternoon, to the amusement of all - including the patient sharing the room.

Granted, not all condoms are made with latex any more; polyurethane entered the game in 1994 and polyisoprene joined the cause in 2008, but for all intents and purposes latex is still king.

Someone asked if latex was manufactured in a lab or came from nature. The simple answers are yes, and yes - latex can be made in the lab, but it more often than not comes from the milky liquid of the para rubber tree, or Hevea brasiliensis, originally from Brazil. It's now found throughout many warmer countries where there is no danger of frost, which can quickly ruin the elastic properties of the crop.

The tree responds well to (and recovers well from) diagonal slices made past the bark layer which then produce the milky liquid that you see being collected in a cup in the photo to the left.

If you've traveled through agricultural areas of Thailand you may have gone right past groves of these trees and not noticed the tell-tale diagonal stripes left by season after season of fresh cuts to generate the milky latex "sap", or the small cups hung on the trees to catch it; much like the juice that becomes maple syrup is collected in the Northeast parts of the US and elsewhere. Even without enlarging the image up top you can see the diagonal bands on the trees.

A staggeringly high percentage of condoms available in the USA are labeled "Made in Thailand", so the next time you're using latex as a precaution during an intimate moment (and it's my fervent hope that you do), you can thank trees like these in Southeastern Thailand, who did their part to keep you safe... while you're doing yours.


Anonymous said...

The price of the raw commodity has gone up a lot in recent years. Now you can see expanse of rubber trees in the Northeastern provinces like Boeng Kan , Nong Khai, Nakhon Phanom & across the Mekong in Lao territories. Malaysia, Thailand & Indonesia are the main producers.

khunbaobao said...

Thank you for adding that, Eduard. I'm still learning about Thailand and my guess is it's more than just me who appreciates hearing from others! Have you spent much time in those areas?

Anonymous said...

Khun Bao
The sight of the Mekong river makes me very happy, & for that reason alone I travel to Thailand, Laos, Cambodia & Vietnam very often. Besides, She has so many handsome sons along her path to the South China Seas.

khunbaobao said...

With the Mekong flowing some 3K miles you really cover some ground! I'd enjoy reading some about your travels, Eduard; email me if you care to share or have any stories or observations posted online somewhere. My address in the right-hand column.