Volunteers gather hair to help mop up oil spill

Despite what the shampoo commercials tell you, maybe oily hair is a good thing after all. Or at least hair that picks up oil.

That's why hairstylists, dog groomers and farmers across the country are mobilizing to collect hair, which, the theory goes, can be used to sop up oil from the massive spill off the Gulf Coast.

Already, more than 450,000 pounds of hair is en route to more than 15 locations in the South — including warehouses, extra mall space and homeowners' garages — where volunteers plan to stuff it into nylons, said Lisa Gautier, the president of Matter of Trust a 12-year-old nonprofit environmental organization in San Francisco.

You shampoo your hair because it collects oil, Gautier said, so why not use hair to clean it up?

"Nature does a lot of work for us if we let it," she said.

The idea is to use the hair-packed nylons in oil containment booms. Just how and when and whether these hairy donations might be used is still up in the air. And no one's suggesting that individuals let fur fly into the ocean on their own.

Michael De Nyse, a spokesman for the Coast Guard in Robert, La., said he's received more than 10 inquiries over the last week from people suggesting hair booms.

"We haven't acted on that suggestion," he said. Currently, crews are using booms made of other absorbent materials.

Even so, the notion of a hirsute solution to a hairy situation has certainly caught on.

Employees at Platinum Salon Spa and Boutique in Wichita, Kan., began collecting hair Thursday for the program. Michele Leigan, a receptionist with the salon, said it hasn't collected enough hair scraps for shipment yet, but clients think it's a great idea.

"Instead of placing their hair in the trash, it's going to a good cause," Leigan said. "They are surprised, but pleasantly so."

Gautier said her donor network has jumped from 16,000 salons, pet groomers and individuals to more than 70,000, including Petco. This week, Hanes donated 50,000 pairs of nylons.

"Everybody is just jumping in," Gautier said.

Salons have hosted cut-a-thons, farmers have inquired about donating llama, pig and alpaca hair, and volunteers in Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida and Alabama have begun organizing "boom-b-cues" to construct the sausage-like contraptions.

"Everyone wants to help," Gautier said.

Paul Berkovitz, the owner of an Agoura Hills dog day-care and camp, said the onset of recent warm weather marks the perfect time to collect cast-off fur.

"The dogs are shedding, especially this time of year," he said.

The camp grounds, which host more than 40 dogs, are cleaned three times a day. The organization set up a collection bin Thursday.

Richard Ambrose, a UCLA professor of environmental health science, said he's never heard of hair being used to clean up oil.

"As long as it's cost effective and it works well, then it seems great," he said.

Gautier said a pound of hair can absorb one quart of oil in a minute.

"Hair is insulation, it's stuffing, it's all kinds of stuff," she said.

nicole.santacruz@latimes.com

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