On Second Thought, Says Scientist, Hair Still Crummy Way to Fight Oil Spill

long hair.jpg
Nice. But not to fight an oil spill.
Distinguished scientist Terry Hazen had to be the big, bad killjoy on a story about how local company Matter of Trust could collect your hair and use it to fight the ongoing Deep Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

"If you shaved everybody in the United States, there wouldn't be enough hair to cover this oil spill," Hazen told SF Weekly.

So it came as something of a surprise to read the suggestion to the New York Times of one Terry Hazen, the esteemed microbial ecologist at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, on how to soak up the oil: "One tactic for reducing the amount of oil in the Gulf would be to seed the affected waters with absorbent materials -- for example cellulose fibers or animal hair -- that can soak up oil." (underlining ours)

Terry, what gives? Have you had a hair epiphany? Not quite, explains the scientist.

No, no, no. Corn cobs. That's what this job calls for.
First, he claims that this is just an excerpt of many suggestions he made to the Times. Rather than advocating for hair, he was simply pointing out that sorbents -- absorbent materials -- of any sort could be used to gather oil.

Yes, hair will soak up some oil. But not nearly as well or expediently as other things. And, he notes, that human hair is loaded with bacteria and pathogens -- and, therefore, not necessarily the greatest thing to send through the mail. Animal hair used in oil-gathering exercises has been sterilized, he notes -- and likely not shipped via the post.

Also, in some grassland situations, using sorbents to remove the oil may cause more damage than leaving in the oil due to all the tramping in and out that would be required.

Even if you do use hair -- and, if it were sterilized, human hair would work as well as animal hair -- there's another problem. First, you toss tons of hair in the water. Then, after it absorbs oil, you haul it out. Then you've got to take the resultant muck and pitch it into a a prepared bed -- "it could be in a parking lot, it could be in a cement container of some type" -- and add keratinophilic fungi, which produce enzymes that break down both the hair and the oil.

But that's a lot of steps -- and you're left with a lot of crap to dispose of.

A better thing to do, Hazen thinks, would be to use 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. Ground peat -- organically rich dirt, essentially -- can absorb 30 times its volume in oil. It's easy to spray it out and collect it up. And, instead of treating it with fungi, you just compress the resultant oily mess into fuel logs.

In summation, hair -- especially yours and mine -- just isn't the best way to combat one of the worst oil spills in national history. "It doesn't seem so, no," agrees Hazen. 

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