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| Human World on May 05, 2010

Can dog hair help clean up the Gulf Coast oil spill?

People who are concerned about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico are being encouraged to donate their dog hair to be made into oil-absorbent mats. But is this method scientifically proven?

As the growing oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico moves towards fragile ecosystems on the coast, people are starting to ask what they can do to help clean up the spill. A California non-profit called Matter of Trust has a popular answer: Donate your dog hair.

According to Matter of Trust, your puppy’s annoying habit of shedding all over the couch can now help save the environment. You (or the dog grooming place, or even your own hair salon – although your hair clippings are not as cute, they also work) send boxes of hair to the non-profit’s warehouse, where they assemble the hair into mats or stuff them into pantyhouse casings, creating something resembling a hair sausage. The hair is then submerged into the ocean, where theoretically, oil clings to the hair shaft like shampoo.

So which mad scientist thought up this idea? Actually, it was a hairdresser in Alabama. During the Exxon- Valdez spill in 1989, hairdresser Phil McCrory saw an image of an otter with oil clinging to its coat. McCrory thought that human hair might have the same effect.

CNN reported on the invention of McCrory’s oil spill hair mats:  “To prove his theory, McCrory did some experiments in his back yard. He took hair cut at his salon and stuffed it into his wife’s panty hose to create a sponge for oil. He then poured some oil into a wading pool, threw in the panty hose filled with hair and waited. A few minutes later he was amazed to find ‘nice clear water.’”

Because McCrory lived near NASA in Huntsville, he asked scientists there to check his invention out. Apparently, NASA gave it a look over and said it would work, although the extent of the testing is unknown. Now McCrory markets his hair mat product both for oil spills and for the plant industry, and he has a deal with Matters of Trust for them to manufacture the product, which is called OttiMat (presumably in honor of the oil-covered otter).

The hair mats have been used in oil spill cleanups since Exxon-Valdez, but there don’t seem to be any studies about how effective they are, beyond NASA’s initial assessment. Or at least, I couldn’t find any scientists commenting on the method in use, in my research around the internet. And, you’ve got to wonder about how rigorously NASA tests citizen-created hair mats.

I’m not saying that hair mats don’t work. They make sense, in theory. Plus, who doesn’t want to enlist the discarded hair of cute animals to save other cute animals? If anything, I would love to send my dog’s hair off to a good cause, rather than the garbage can. But it does seem a bit questionable to give major credence (and major news coverage) to a technique whose major testing stage happened in a backyard pool.