The situation in the Gulf of Mexico just got a little hairier with Los Altos Retreat Salon & Spa’s first-aid shipment of – what else? – hair, to a warehouse in Florida. Add nylon stockings, meshing and a little elbow grease, and the hair that once covered heads and stockings that hosed legs will be transformed to homemade oil booms used to sop up some of the millions of gallons of crude oil pouring into the Gulf following an oil-rig explosion April 20.

When Los Altos resident, Retreat Salon & Spa customer and environmentally conscious Jayna Sutherland read about a grassroots movement by salons to send hair to the Gulf, she decided to take action.

“It’s just such a huge disaster,” Sutherland, 25, said. “I read a piece on the booms online and I immediately thought of Retreat. We have the knowledge to do something. Any little bit of oil that can be cleaned is super helpful.”

Sutherland approached Retreat’s owner Donna Gardner with her proposal – if the stylists would collect the hair in garbage bags, Sutherland would pay for shipping to the spill area. It was the least she could do, Sutherland said.

The booms are the brainchild of Phillip McCrory, a hair stylist in Alabama who was watching news coverage of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 and noticed otters’ fur saturated with thick, slimy sludge.

“If animal fur can trap and hold spilled oil, why can’t human hair?” McCrory said, according to his Web site,

McCrory stuffed 5 pounds of hair into a pair of pantyhose and tied the ankles together to form a ring. He created a homemade environmental disaster by pouring used motor oil into his son’s wading pool. He placed the boom into the water and removed it two minutes later.

“Not a trace of oil was left in the water,” McCrory wrote on his site.

Just as natural oils accumulate on human hair, McCrory discovered that oil droplets cling to the shinglelike, layered cuticles on hair strands instead of being absorbed into the shaft. Encased in nylon and meshing for stability, oil can be squeezed from the booms, allowing them to be reused several times.

However, McCrory’s initial success was merely sopping 1 gallon of oil with hair and a pair of pantyhose – not the 3 million gallons that spilled into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Santa Barbara in 1969 or the nearly 11-million-gallons that polluted Alaska’s Prince William Sound from the Exxon Valdez in 1989. And it certainly can’t compare with last week’s estimate in the New York Times that between 21 million and 45 million gallons of crude oil have permeated the Gulf since an oil rig leased by BP (British Petroleum) exploded, killing 11 workers. And with 500,000 to 1 million gallons gushing each day, last week’s disaster appraisals are substantially higher today.

But with estimates of 200,000 pounds of human hair hitting landfills each year, according to eco-lifestyle TV network Planet Green, and chemical oil dispersants that can be as toxic as crude oil itself, booms offer an eco-friendly alternative.

Enter San Francisco-based Matter of Trust, a non-profit organization founded in 1998 by Lisa Craig Gautier and her husband, Patrice Olivier Gautier. Their mission is to link ideas and spark action in establishing sustainable systems that make environmental sense. The group has secured warehouse space along the Gulf Coast for storage and informs donors where to send boom materials to connect with volunteers who will assemble them on site.

“We’re using Facebook and Twitter. We have so many that have donated – salons, warehouses – and volunteers organize ‘boombecue’ parties to make the booms,” said Lisa Gautier, who returned from the Gulf region last week. “We have miles of booms already made, but BP won’t let us deploy it.”

Gautier said confusion reigns as to which agencies have authority to regulate the cleanup – the Environmental Protection Agency, the Coast Guard, BP – “It’s an incredibly tense situation,” she said.

Moreover, only hazardous-materials teams may clean up the oil, and they’re in short supply in a cash-strapped state with contaminated waters that covered 88,000 square miles last week, according to the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration.

And not everyone believes in value of the oil booms.

House of Daniel On Main in Los Altos owner Wanda Whittaker heard that hair booms don’t work, but she conceded they could.

“Hair gets greasy – it does make sense that it would work,” she said.

Down the street, European Hair Salon of Los Altos owner Rosa Younekian has her doubts.

“Hair helps, but in oil of that magnitude, I don’t think it works,” she said.

But Gautier is a boom believer.

“It’s a great answer. It’s a natural answer,” she said. “But we hit an artery here. It’s one of many answers.”

Gautier noted the irony in using booms made from plastic to contain the ever-widening spill – oil is used in the booms’ production.

No matter which methods are used in the cleanup, a BP official’s recent comment that the company would be in the Gulf a very long time is likely an understatement.

“It’s so upsetting,” Sutherland said. “It’s one more example of how humanity doesn’t take precautions to preserve our environment for the future.”

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