Second Thoughts on Using Hair to Clean Oil Spill

By: USA Today
By: USA Today

A tiny non-profit here thought it had an idea worth testing on the Gulf Coast oil spill: Try using booms created from old pantyhose stuffed with hair from pet and beauty salons to sop up the oil.

But neither the oil company nor other scientists put much stock in the idea. So now tens of thousands of "hair booms" are fast clogging the postal system and filling donated warehouses around the Gulf region.

Among the problems: It's unclear whether the volunteer-made booms are usable; they haven't been tested in an actual major oil spill; and BP, the oil company responsible for cleaning up the spill, hasn't returned the non-profit's phone calls.

Lisa Craig Gautier, 43, spent Tuesday fielding calls and e-mails from eager volunteers who are organizing "boom-B-Q" boom-making parties. She and her husband founded the group in their living room 12 years ago. Gautier says they've done "dozens" of tests using the booms, but they haven't been deployed in an actual spill or in anything like the conditions in the Gulf of Mexico, where 210,000 gallons of crude is flowing daily.

None of that mattered to Gautier on April 30. That day, she began talking with hair salons in the Gulf states about collecting hair to use to make the oil-absorbing booms. The idea hit the Internet and went viral.

Volunteers offered up 15 warehouse spaces near the spill area, and Gautier's organization, Matter of Trust, began advising people where to send the hair.

The booms are made by cutting the legs off used pantyhose, stuffing them with hair or fur clippings and then tying off the ends. The sausage-like object is stuffed in a plastic mesh.

Gautier has been calling BP for days, but no one will tell her whether they can use the booms. The only official word came Sunday when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a fact sheet that said: "Recent reports of a need for hair are exaggerated and not helpful to the response effort."

Petco, which had begun to collect fur from its 1,000 salons on Friday, is now backing off. "While it's a good idea, it's not clear how exactly the booms, once they get put together, will get deployed effectively," spokesman Kevin Whalen says.

Oil-cleanup companies use polypropylene products that look like pom-poms to soak up oil, because they're consistent and known to function in difficult environments, says Jim Riedel, a general manager for marine services with NRC Environmental Services in Seattle.

Gautier says that if BP doesn't want the booms, Matter of Trust will make them available to municipalities for local cleanup.

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