Saturday, May 08, 2010

Oil Spills and Human Hair: Who Thought of That?

By R.B. Moreno

Crude oil spreading shoreward from the blowout of BP's Deepwater Horizon rig in the northern Gulf of Mexico has "crept deeper into the bays and marshes of the Mississippi Delta," according to news wires. The AP notes that "[a] sheen of oil began arriving on land" days ago, prompting efforts by the Coast Guard and BP to burn, chemically disperse, or contain the spill with booms. Still, a "thicker, stickier goo -- arrayed in vivid, brick-colored ribbons -- is drawing ever closer to Louisiana's coastal communities."

Major U.S. oil spills, such as the the 2007 wreck of the Cosco Busan in San Francisco Bay, have been relatively infrequent since the plight of Alaska's Prince William Sound first generated public outcry more than two decades ago. When spills do make the news, one particularly novel means of mitigating the goo tends to attract volunteers and environmentalists -- and with them, reporters.

"As it turns out, hair adheres to oil pretty efficiently, which is why your hair gets greasy," explained NPR on Wednesday. "Now," the report continues, "salons are donating their discarded locks to help with the Gulf Coast cleanup." Matter of Trust, a San Francisco group specializing in oil booms trimmed with nylons and animal fur, "is directing its current stockpile of hair -- 400,000 pounds" toward the same effort. (Full disclosure: RBM worked for NPR between 2004 and 2008.)

I profiled two men behind the original prototype for an oil boom stuffed with human hair in "The Hair in Your Texas Garlic Toast," a nonfiction story appearing in the current issue of California State University, Fresno's The Normal School. Here's an excerpt:
[T]he year was 1989. Exxon’s infamous oil tanker had just run aground on a reef, spilling nearly eleven-million gallons of the state’s own crude into Prince William Sound. As reporters and volunteers descended on the scene of one of the nation’s worst ecological disasters, pictures of oil-drenched seabirds, harbor seals, and, especially, otters began flooding American TV sets. The volunteers made Dawn dishwashing liquid legendary in helping to treat affected animals, but the task of mopping up crude from the cold waters and rock-strewn shores of the sound proved a messy, largely insurmountable task.

Watching pictures of the cleanup, meanwhile, some 4,000 miles away in Huntsville, Alabama, was a hair stylist named Phil McCrory. “I thought if animal fur can trap and hold spilled oil, why can’t human hair,” said McCrory. World Response Group, Inc., an environmental firm [led by a Florida man, Blair] Blacker, describes what happened next as a “home experiment.” McCrory gathered up several pounds of hair from his salon, drove home, and stuffed the mass into a pair of his wife’s pantyhose. With the legs tied together, the nylon bundle formed a kind of pillow that he thought just might soak up oil. But to test the idea, McCrory needed an oil spill. And so he simulated the catastrophe of Prince William Sound on a slightly smaller scale––his son’s plastic wading pool. He filled the tub with water, added a gallon of used motor oil from his garage, and dropped in his invention. Two minutes passed. Then he checked the pool. “The water was crystal clear,” claims World Response. “Not a trace of oil was left,” said McCrory.

The stylist sensed he had stumbled on something useful, and before long one of the country’s foremost laboratories took an interest. “This is the kind of thing I call genius,” NASA scientist Elizabeth Rogers told an NBC reporter in 1999 ... “It would seem obvious, but no one else did think of it, and Phil McCrory did,” she said. McCrory promptly patented the design for an oil-collecting pillow. A few years later, a colleague of Blacker’s walked into the offices of World Response with a wad of hair. “I had an epiphany, if you want to call it that,” says Blacker. “I said, ‘Wow, we better pay attention to this.’” He decided to buy the technology––and hire its inventor.

Despite NASA’s confirmation that hair does prove effective in separating oil and water—especially because the strands appear to absorb oil, or simply hold on to it, rather than absorbing it, as polypropylene sponges do––the market in the 1990s was not as interested in McCrory’s invention as was NASA. “We were basically equal to or lower in price [and] more efficient” than the synthetic technology, says Blacker. “But it didn’t fit in the paradigm.” Perhaps not surprisingly, the conventional approach to mopping up spills, the one favored by oil companies, did not involve “green” products or attempts to repurpose the oil collected. “Use polypropylene mats and throw them away,” is how Blacker describes the paradigm. By contrast, World Response’s product (a refinement of McCrory’s pillow, still sold today), has cleanup crews wring oil from a limited number of mats woven entirely from hair, “and then when you’re finally done with whatever emergency spill that you have, either clean the mat and store it or then dispose of it.” Blacker explains this logic with the wistful tone of an entrepreneur whose brainchild remains unappreciated. “Totally different paradigm,” he adds. “And remember, petroleum then was 20 bucks a barrel.”

Unable to successfully market the “OttiMat,” as McCrory and Blacker dubbed their answer to Exxon Valdez (in deference, it seems, to Valdez’s otters), World Response began exploring other applications for human hair.
To read this and other tales of cunning and adventure in their entirety, visit The Normal School's subscriptions page and ask for volume three, issue one. "The Hair in Your Texas Garlic Toast" also appears in the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference's 2010 issue of Ten Spurs.

Update (June 9, 2010) -- Government scientists, BP, and the Coast Guard have been weighing in on precisely how valuable hair becomes in cleaning up spills such as the one currently affecting the Gulf. Not so valuable, seems to be their answer. First came skepticism from a microbial ecologist, the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory's Terry Hazen, who revised earlier comments suggesting that absorbent materials such as animal hair might be used to "seed the affected waters." Hazen recently told the SF Weekly that, in sum, "Yes, hair will soak up some oil. But not nearly as well or expediently as other things." What kinds of things? He says he prefers "corn cobs, corn stover (other corn detritus), the leavings from cotton gins and even peat -- which Hazen has helped Russians use to soak up oil spills."

Then, a week later, in a blow to efforts by San Francisco-based Matter of Trust (see above) to use human hair in mitigating the Gulf mess, the Coast Guard and BP announced they would not be taking hair booms out to sea. One petty officer told told reporters that "We foresee a risk that widespread deployment of the hair boom could exacerbate the debris problem." Instead, an alternative "sorbent boom," of the kind that pushed Blair Blacker away from the OttiMat business, has won out.

Update (June 25, 2010) -- BBC News Magazine has just published "From Food to Fashion, the Thriving Market in Human Hair." Writer Denise Winterman's story touches on hair's role in some of the same industries profiled in RBM's "The Hair in Your Texas Garlic Toast," including environmental protection. An excerpt:
BP's ruptured oil well in the Gulf of Mexico has highlighted a very environmentally-friendly use for human hair - as a mop for the crude oil. Each hair follicle has an enormous surface area and is "spiky", so the oil "sticks" to it. This is because it is adsorbent, not absorbent like a sponge. It's why we wash our hair, because it collects the oils our bodies produce. It is also the case with fur and wool ... The idea of using human hair to mop up oil spills was the brain child of US hair stylist Phil McCory. Watching the Exxon Valdez disaster unfold on TV in 1989, he noticed how hard it was for volunteers to clean oil from otters because it was trapped in their fur. He tested to see if it was the same with human hair and it was.

1 comment:

  1. I just got my copy of the Normal. Guess what I am going to be reading tonight... ;-) Pop