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Hair May Capture Some Oil in Gulf of Mexico Disaster 

click to enlarge Scores of booms were filled with hair and fur at a May 13 event in Alabama.
  • Scores of booms were filled with hair and fur at a May 13 event in Alabama.

Before the BP oil disaster, hair salons might have been alarmed upon receiving shipments of lopped-off ponytails. Now it's become part of local salons' efforts to help alleviate the oil spill's damage.

  "I don't think there's a state in the country that hasn't sent in hair," says Daisye Suduran, assistant spa director at Ritz-Carlton New Orleans, adding that the hotel's salon has even received boxes of hair — which have come in the form of clippings from salon floors or even entire ponytails — from around the world. "It touches your heart how nice people have been."

  Suduran spearheaded an effort to collect hair on behalf of Matter of Trust, a San Francisco-based environmental nonprofit that connects donors and users of secondhand materials. The group has been making booms out of human hair and animal fur to soak up oil from spills since 1998, but it's gotten a lot busier in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon explosion. BP and some conservationists, however, aren't sold on the idea of hair booms.

  "Basically, you shampoo because hair collects oil," Matter of Trust president Lisa Gautier says, explaining the rationale for using hair booms during the introduction of a YouTube video providing instructions on how to make them. The man in the video put a PVC pipe that's 4 inches in diameter through a hole in a piece of wood, securing the pipe with duct tape. Wearing goggles and a mask, he attaches one leg from a pair of nylon stockings to the end of the pole, stuffs hair through the pipe and ties the end of the stocking — creating something resembling a hair-filled sausage.

  The group uses an online database called Excess Access that directs salons, barbershops, pet groomers and wool farmers to donation sites. The booms are being stored in rented warehouse facilities along the Gulf Coast.

  Suduran heard about Matter of Trust in an episode of the Bravo TV show Tabatha's Salon Takeover and got inspired to collect hair in her own salon. "We have a salon, and we throw hair away. Instead, why don't we keep a bin and go from there?" she says. Instead of sweeping up hair that falls on the floor during haircuts and throwing it in a trash can, Suduran's salon started collecting it in a bin for hair booms. The salon recently became an official donation site for Matter of Trust.

  Other salons also are lending a hand — or a head — to the efforts. Brenda McField, owner and hairstylist for Mariposa Salon & Spa, says her business is working in conjunction with Vanguard College of Cosmetology, a Paul Mitchell school with locations in Slidell and Baton Rouge, to collect hair and nylons to construct booms. Vanguard is collecting the donated hair and assembling the booms. The Arc of Greater New Orleans, an organization that helps children with mental retardation and related developmental disabilities, is another official donation site.

Some people, however, doubt that the hair booms are a good way to protect the coastline against oil. Elizabeth Underwood, director of Aorta Projects and Worn Again NOLA, has been volunteering with the Audubon Society and with cleanup efforts in Hopedale, La. She has some trepidation toward the booms based on her experiences and conversations with those involved in the cleanup efforts.

click to enlarge Volunteers in Alabama fill stockings with hair to make oil booms.
  • Volunteers in Alabama fill stockings with hair to make oil booms.

  "There's two levels of controversy," she says "One, is how do you decontaminate (the booms) and contain them, and two, is if they're made of burlap or nylon, they could endanger wildlife."

  As of press time, British Petroleum has not provided details as to when, or if, it will deploy the booms. In a recent press statement, BP said it was "not soliciting or accepting donations." Matter of Trust responded on May 14 with, "At this time, we are simply providing volunteers the opportunity to make hair booms and stockpile them all along the Gulf Coast, in case BP needs them. We're calling it Plan H (H is for Hair)."

  Underwood says while people eager to assist in cleanup efforts may be well-intentioned, it might be best to wait.

  "I think all of us in New Orleans got baptized in a particular way of responding to disaster that means you've got to do something hands-on or not do anything at all," she says. "You want to do something that you can put your hands on and not just sign petitions and make phone calls. The last thing people who feel powerless want to hear is to wait, but it's really the most prudent thing I've heard. ... If we're not highly trained specialized employees, we need to educate ourselves first and foremost."

  But Suduran, along with volunteers from the city and around the country, keeps collecting hair and nylons and constructing booms. She estimates they've constructed at least 2,000 booms. All they're waiting for is an OK from BP.

"Once BP gives us the go ahead," she says, "(the booms) are there and ready."

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