• Why is Human Hair Good for Oil Spills?

Analytical Instrumentation

Why is Human Hair Good for Oil Spills?

Sep 07 2020

In a nationwide show of solidarity, the people of Mauritius are engaging in mass haircuts to clean up an oil spill caused after a Japanese ship hit a coral reef off the coast of the island. To prevent an ecological disaster, citizens launched an island wide campaign to protect the shoreline with homemade barriers crafted from sugar cane leaves, straw and human hair. The organic materials were stuffed into fabric sacks and transformed into makeshift floating booms help to contain the spill.

“Citizens are building kilometres of floating booms to contain the spillage and we have been fabricating these with sugar cane leaves but we are also making it with hair because hair is a great absorbent for oil,” said Mauritian MP Joanna Berenger in an interview with the BBC.

As a lipophilic material, human hair repels water but actively absorbs oil. According to Berenger, one kilogram of human hair can absorb up to eight litres of oil, making it a highly effective material for cleaning up spills.

Human hair gains momentum as oil absorbent

It’s not the first time human hair has been used as an oil absorbent, with the concept first tested in the 1970s when a Liberian oil tanker ran aground off the coast of France. More than 220,000 tonnes of oil leaked into the ocean, which prompted scientists to explore human hair as a material for absorbing the spill. The technique was used again in 2004, when a Taylor Energy oil platform was severely damaged by Hurricane Ivan. More recently, a study published in the journal Environments championed human and dog hair as an affordable and sustainable substitute for synthetic fabrics such as polypropylene.

Mass haircuts to protect delicate ecosystem

As well as local haircuts, France has also joined the cause and pledged to send 20 tonnes of hair to Mauritius. With the spill now infiltrating sensitive areas like the Blue Bay Marine Park, accelerating the clean-up effort is a top priority for both the local government and Mauritian citizens, who are heavily reliant on tourism. As well as impacting the tourism industry, oil spills pose a major threat to the delicate coral reefs and wetlands that circle the island and protect it from rising sea levels. There’s also a significant public health threat, with major spills causing issues such as liver damage, increased cancer risk, lung disorders and reproductive issues.

From oil spills to emissions, the maritime industry is heavily criticised for its environmental impact. ‘An analytical approach to marine fuel standards’ spotlights the latest efforts being made to lower emissions and reduce the industry’s environmental footprint.

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