Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Hair to the Rescue

Efforts to contain the leak from the wreckage of the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico have so far failed. Over 200,000 gallons of crude oil are being spilled into the Gulf each day. And winds are pushing the oil closer to the Mississippi Delta.

Rather than sit idly by while they await the spill’s landfall, Gulf residents are gathering at “Boom B Qs” where they are making sausage shaped booms of human hair and nylon stockings, designed to soak up the oil before it hits land. The residents are supplying the manual labor. San Francisco-based nonprofit Matter of Trust is collecting the materials and providing the initial training. This photo of such a gathering comes from their site: www.matteroftrust.org2

Matter of Trust is the group who mobilized and organized surfers to collect sludge using mats of human hair after the 2008 oil spill in San Francisco Bay. In response to this current emergency, the group is orchestrating an “International Natural Fiber Recycling Movement.” They are collecting hair, fur, and nylons for shipment to the Gulf — “Everyone is welcome!” At the Matter of Trust site you will find clear instructions for shipping materials. They are also looking for monetary donations to cover the cost of the netting in which the booms must be encased.

The response has been huge. After the initial flood of donations caused chaos in the postal system, Matter of Trust has been assigned their own zip codes. On May 7 Petco announced that its nearly 1,000 grooming centers have joined the movement, with hopes of collecting a ton of hair per day. Hanesbrands, Inc. has donated 37,500 pairs of pantyhose to Matter of Trust, and an additional 12,500 pairs to a second group with the same mission, The Sunshine and Shores Foundation in Florida.

This novel use for human hair was pioneered in 1989 by hair stylist Phil McCrory. He was shampooing a client’s hair while watching coverage of the Exxon Valdez oil spill cleanup. McCrory had his eureka moment when he realized, after seeing the oil-soaked fur of an Alaskan otter, “We shampoo because hair collects oil.” McCory decided to try this experiment at home. He stuffed a pair of his wife’s pantyhose with five pounds of hair clippings, and tied it into a ring. He then poured a gallon of used motor oil into a filled kiddie pool and lowered his invention into the water. After he removed the pantyhose two minutes later, the water in the pool was crystal clear.

What a stroke of genius — using such a readily available waste product for bioremediation!

McCrory called his product OttiMat™. His invention (at right) is currently being fabricated in China from purchased hair and a small amount of polypropylene. Durable as well as effective, the mats can be rung out and used again and again. McCrory continues to lend his expertise to Matter of Trust, who hopes to partner with OttiMat™ to make the product in the US.

After the San Francisco oil spill, Matter of Trust worked with mycologists (those who study fungi) to find a way to decontaminate the oil-soaked mats.  Mycelia, the filamentous hyphae or “roots,” of the oyster mushroom (Pleurotus streatus) were introduced to a limited number of mats. The mycelia grew extremely well on this surface, effectively breaking down the petrochemical sludge. The fruiting mushrooms were themselves toxin-free.

For those of you interested in reading more about the exciting field of mycoremediaton, the process of using fungi to restore an environment contaminated by pollutants to its previous state, I suggest this wonderful book: Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World, by fungi guru Paul Stamets.

It will be interesting to see whether mycoremediation will be employed to detoxify these newest booms. Sometime soon maybe Gulf shrimp will be replaced by Gulf mushrooms in a market near you.

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