Using hair for cleaning up oil spills

Page - May 8, 2007

Using Hair is OK

There are many methods of treating an oil slick, depending on whether the oil slick has reached the shore yet or not. None will provide a thorough “clean up”, as that is impossible. Bioremediation is certainly one available clean up technique, especially once the oil has reached land.  However, it’s preferable to prevent the oil from reaching the shore in the first place. This is most effectively done by the use of booms. Booms made of natural materials such as rice straws and hair are preferable to synthetic materials.

Human hair is ultimately biodegradable as it is a natural material. Degradation rates depend on the environment, and include factors such as moisture availability. Under certain conditions (usually very dry or mummified bodies), human body parts, including hair, can be well preserved. Usually, however, hair does biodegrade and so is unlikely to cause serious long-term problems. The high surface area of hair does make it an excellent adsorbent and there are claims that it can even be re-used.  However, in a situation such as the current oil spill, all types of readily available natural materials should be used as there is so much oil that needs to be prevented from reaching the shoreline.

What to do with the oil

There are no perfect methods of disposal once the spill has occurred. The most important aspect is that it is removed from the coastline as much as possible. Once collected, there are several alternatives to simply burning or landfilling. None of these are perfect options and expertise may be available abroad.

If the oil can be recovered and re-refined, that is the best option.

Once collected, the oil can be bioremediated. This is best done in a controlled manner in a contained land-based facility where emissions can be monitored and prevented. Bioremediation can speed up biodegradation but again, must be done in a controlled facility and should not include the use of GMOs.

If other options are not practical, burning with agricultural waste in a fuel-efficient manner is preferable to leaving the oil on shore. However, incineration with other products such as municipal waste would cause release of toxic dioxins and other persistent organic pollutants to the atmosphere (thereby transforming the problem into one of toxics pollution).

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