People Are Cutting Off Their Hair to Soak Up the Mauritius Oil Spill

 People scoop leaked oil near Blue bay Marine Park in southeast Mauritius on August 9, 2020
People scoop leaked oil near Blue bay Marine Park in southeast Mauritius on August 9, 2020
Photo: L’Express Maurice (Getty Images)

In an attempt to stave off ecological disaster, Mauritius residents are cutting off their own hair to soak up an oil spill that began off the coast of the island nation in late July.

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The crisis that forced the government to declare a “state of environmental emergency” began when a Japanese ship started leaking tons of fuel oil into the Indian Ocean. The flow of oil has stopped, but officials are now rushing to drain an estimated 2,500 tons of oil from the bulk carrier before it breaks in half and further pollutes the water.

The commodities vessel has leaked some 1,000 metric tons of oil into the sea. Residents of the small nation are doing whatever they can to contain the oil, making booms from sugar cane leaves, plastic bottles, old stockings, and even, somewhat alarmingly, human hair that people are voluntarily cutting off.

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Because human hair absorbs oil but not water, scientists have for years suggested it as a material to contain oil spills into water bodies. Now, Mauritians have launched a campaign to collect massive quantities of human hair across the island for this purpose.

All over the nation, hairdressers are reportedly offering free haircuts to residents. Some abroad are also choosing to cut off their locks and ship it over to be used to soak up the fuel. All this hair can then be sewn into tubes and nets which float on the water, corralling the oil.

On the one hand, this is all very inspiring—communities are coming together in a bizarre show of mutual aid. But on the other, they shouldn’t need to do so. After all, this isn’t the first oil spill the world has seen. Oil tankers, it turns out, sometimes leak. When they do, the effects can be devastating for people, animals, and entire ecosystems—just look at what happened during oil company BP’s 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster.

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This emergency is especially scary for a small country like Mauritius. Its economy is heavily dependent on its beautiful beaches that tourists flock to. Many residents are also dependent on fishing for food and income, but marine life is now in peril. Since the oil spilled near the country’s Blue Bay Marine Park, it is also threatening local coral, fish, and other marine life species. The fuel is also spreading near delicate, biodiverse wetlands, which protect the country from sea level rise.

The country has declared a state of emergency, and its former colonizer ruler France has sent aid. The ship’s operator, the Mitsui OSK Line, has also apologized for the accident. But it’s clear that an apology isn’t enough. Neither are the noble efforts to collect donations of human hair. We need to stop using oil. As if we needed any more evidence of that.

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Staff writer, Earther

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DISCUSSION

dnapl
Dense non aqueous phase liquid

Apparently (as in upon googling) researchers looked into human hair for oil spill remediation applicability. This from the Journal of Environmental Chemical Engineering back in 2015:

Liquid-phase sorption characteristics of human hair as a natural oil spill sorbent

The abstract:

The potential of human hair as an oil spill sorbent was investigated in this study by batch adsorption experiments in vegetable oil, crude oil and diesel fuel. Three categories of human hairs were used: Type A (Asian origin), Type B (European origin) and Type C (African origin). The order of performance based on the sorption capacities was in the order: Type C > Type A > Type B. All hair types adsorbed three to nine times their weight in oil. Maximum adsorption capacities of 9300 ± 64, 8100 ± 165 and 7917 ± 72 mg/g were achieved for Type C hair in vegetable oil, crude oil and diesel fuel, respectively. The sorption capacity of human hair showed an inverse relationship with temperature for all the oils and sorption occurred on heterogeneous sites with no uniform distribution of energy. Desorption and reusability test showed high reusability without any significant deterioration in sorption capacity. The study demonstrated that human hair has potential for use as a low-cost, effective and environmentally friendly biosorbent for oil spill cleanup.

Why the researchers made the leap from the general “sorption” to the more specific “adsorption” is curious. A(B)sorption may also be at play here. A(D)sorption being more of a surface attraction/van der waals forces kind of thing. Think aDsorption of a molecule onto the surface of activated carbon for water/air treatment. Where aBsorption is kind of imbibition. Think a sponge soaking up water. It comes down to maybe whether or not hair is bundled into tight clumps versus individual hair pieces strewn about, maybe. Maybe not.

With the stated adsorption capacities in the abstract, a lot hair may be needed for a 1,000 metric ton oil (diesel?) spill. Like a big bunch.