n 1989, Phillip McCrory watched a CNN story on the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Seeing the difficulty volunteers were having cleaning oil from the fur of otters, McCrory wondered if perhaps human hair could be used to soak up oil. His curiosity could revolutionize how we attack oil spills.
McCrory is a hairdresser who lives in Madison, Alabama. After seeing the oily otters on CNN, he brought a bag of hair home the next day. He stuffed an old pair of his wife Sherry's nylons with five pounds of hair, then tied the ankles together to make a ring. After he filled his son's plastic pool with water, he dumped in a gallon of used motor oil. He dunked the ring of hairy panty hose. "In two minutes, the water was crystal clear," he said recently over the phone from his salon.
Chicken feathers, wool, and straw are other natural substances used on oil spills, but hair seems to be more effective, said McCrory, who brought his discovery to researchers at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in nearby Huntsville, Alabama.
The scientists did further tests: they filled a 55-gallon drum with 40 gallons of water and 15 gallons of oil. Another drum, which drained at the bottom, was stuffed with nylon bags full of hair. The drum with the oily water was poured into the drum with the hair. When the water flowed out the bottom, only 17 parts of oil per million parts of water remained, equal to about two drops of oil. [read more
May 25, 2010
Like countless beauticians across the country, Ana La Bella has had the hair swept from the floor of her salon, wrapped in plastic bags and shipped off to help contain the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
But the boxes she sent are piling up with hundreds of thousands of pounds of hair, pet fur and fleece in 19 warehouses spread throughout Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Florida.
BP and the U.S. Coast Guard say they are not using hair to sop up the oil, and don't plan to.
La Bella, who has a chalkboard near the entrance of La Bella Salon saying the shop is collecting hair for the spill, said she would be angry if the hair is being collected for no reason.
"I would feel responsible for my clients' hair," she said.
The hair-for-oil effort was organized by the San Francisco-based nonprofit Matter of Trust. After repeated requests for comment by telephone and e-mail, the group released a statement over the weekend saying there had been a misunderstanding with BP.
The hair was collected to make homespun oil boom to contain the ooze as it invades deeper into coastal marshland.
Engineers said they concluded that using the hair was not feasible, and that the organizations collecting the hair were asked to stop doing so.
"We foresee a risk that widespread deployment of the hair boom could exacerbate the debris problem," said Coast Guard spokesman Petty Officer Shawn Eggert in Robert, La., at the main command center.
Mark Salt, a BP spokesman based in Houston, said the company is using something called sorbent boom, which is made of materials that attract oil but repel water. The materials are placed in fabric socks.
"There's currently no shortage of this sorbent boom in Louisiana and thus no need to consider the need for alternative products," Salt said.
Maggie Sherman, 31, was glad to have her hair donated — and hoped there was a chance it would still be used.
"In my mind, I think they should be doing everything that they can in every capacity. There's no telling what the chemical dispersant is doing to the environment," she said.
In its statement, Matter of Trust said the boom is there in case it's needed, but the group is asking new participants to wait for alerts before sending more hair to the gulf.
Matter of Trust also said representatives from other harbors have contacted the group about using the hair for smaller spills.
"We shampoo because hair collects oil. Why should millions of pounds of absorbent, natural, renewable fiber clippings go to waste every day?" the group said on its website. [read more