Wednesday, May 12, 2010

People giving the hair off their heads for oil cleanup

By Steve Gelsi, MarketWatch
NEW YORK (MarketWatch) -- Volunteer efforts to collect hair cuttings from pets and people for oil-protective barriers to contain the spill in the Gulf of Mexico are blossoming in recent weeks.

Stoked by social-networking sites as well as coverage in the mainstream media, San Francisco-based charity Matter of Trust now reports hundreds of thousands of pounds of hair have been donated from every state in the United States, as well as from Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Spain and the United Kingdom.

The nonprofit group, an early champion of the oil-soaking abilities of hair, has ramped up its Hair for Oil Spills program, as BP PLC /quotes/comstock/13*!bp/quotes/nls/bp (BP 48.42, -0.32, -0.65%) struggles to contain a leak spewing from an underwater well. Read full coverage of the Deepwater Horizon rig disaster.

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The oil major is aware of the hair-based booms, but it's decided to stick with Sorbent booms for now, BP spokesman Mark Salt said Tuesday. The Sorbent booms are made by Andax Industries, based in St. Marys, Kan.

"It's great that people are involved, but we're sticking with the Sorbent booms, since there's no shortage of them at the moment," Salt commented. "We don't want to dismiss the hair booms, but the Sorbent boom is superior."

Many of the booms have yet to be deployed, as much of the oil remains off the mainland in the Gulf of Mexico. It's now washing up on barrier islands such as Grand Island, La.

Local roots
Matter of Trust was started 10 years ago, and helped clean up the 2007 San Francisco Bay Area spill from the Cosco Busan tanker through use of booms stuffed with hair.

Volunteers on the Gulf Coast are hosting parties, called "Boom B Qs," to assemble hair booms in backyards, according to co-founder Lisa Craig Gautier.

Each strand of hair is riddled with microscopic scales; one pound of it can mop up as much as a quart of oil. Hair mats also can be squeezed out and used again.

To illustrate the method, a video from Matter of Trust posted on YouTube features a hair mat sopping up a thick layer of oil added to about five gallons of water. From a gooey mess, the water practically turns clear once the hair mat gets lifted out. Watch the Matter of Trust video.

Matter of Trust

Matter of Trust is helping to organize volunteer groups to make oil booms, while raising money to buy mesh from DelStar Technologies, a privately held, industrial-netting company in Middletown, Del.

Home invention
The name of Alabama hair cutter Phil McCrory comes up frequently in the effort as an inventor of hairy booms for oil cleanups.

In a 2008 interview with National Public Radio, McCrory said he got the idea after looking at the oil-soaked fur of otters in Alaska during the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, and decided to try it on hair he swept up at his shop.

"I took the hair home, put it in my wife's panty hose, created a little imaginary spill there in my little pool and cleaned the water up," he said in the interview. "Within a minute and a half, I had the water crystal clear, and all the oil was in the panty hose loaded with hair."

Matter of Trust's Facebook page lists 10,000 followers, along with dozens of links to hair salons, some of which are overseas, that are donating hair. All told, Matter of Trust's hair-salon network mushroomed to 90,000 from 35,000 in recent days, co-founder Gautier reportedly said this week.

Steve Gelsi is a reporter for MarketWatch in New York.

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