Locals Donate Hair To Help Soak Up Oil Spill Off Mauritius

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By Tsvetana Paraskova

The island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean is attracting tourists thanks to its pristine beaches, spectacular lagoons and coral reefs, and unique marine life.

These days, however, Mauritius is attracting a different kind of attention after a ship carrying fuel oil and diesel ran aground off the coast in late July, spilling part of the oil into the ocean.

The government of Mauritius – a country with a population of 1.3 million people – has declared a state of environmental emergency. Residents are angry with the inadequate government response and are volunteering to help soak up the oil spill despite government warnings to steer clear of the spill and not risk their health.

So dedicated are the efforts to soak up the oil, people in Mauritius and abroad are even cutting off their hair and donating it for makeshift adsorbent sacks to soak up the oil, as prior scientific research has shown that human hair is a good adsorbent of oil.

The latest oil spill also served as a renewed call from environmental organizations that the world should accelerate the move away from oil.

The disaster off Mauritius began on July 25 when bulk carrier Wakashio, owned by Japan’s Nagashiki Shipping and headed for Brazil, ran aground off the coast of the Indian Ocean island.

By August 11, around 1,180 metric tons of oil – out of the total 4,000 metric tons on board – had leaked out from the vessel fuel tank, with an estimated 1,000 metric tons leaked outside of the vessel, and 460 metric tons are estimated to have been manually recovered from sea and coast, Mitsui O.S.K. Lines, the charterer of the vessel, said on Tuesday.

“We confirmed that the crack inside the hull of the ship had expanded. Since this ship is unable to navigate by itself, it is moored to a tugboat so that it will not drift even if it is broken,” Mitsui O.S.K. Lines said.

Because of the expanded cracks, “the situation’s about to get 10 times worse. It’ll be a major catastrophe,” Dr Vassen Kauppaymuthoo, the island’s premier oceanographer, told NBC News over the weekend.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has joined international efforts to clean the spill.

Locals are donating hair to help soak up the oil spill, hoping to prevent further damage to the marine life and coral reefs.

In the late 1990s, NASA tested the hair-raising recovery technique to clean up oil spills, after an Alabama hairdresser found that human hair stuffed in pantyhose was soaking up oil spilled in water. The hairdresser, Phillip McCrory, had estimated that 25,000 pounds of hair in nylon collection bags may be sufficient to adsorb 170,000 gallons of spilled oil, and a gallon of oil can be adsorbed in less than two minutes with this technique.

In 2015, researchers from the Department of Geography, Environment & Disaster Management at the Coventry University in the UK found that human hair adsorbed 3–9 times its weights in various oil types.

This year, a project of the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) found that dog fur and human hair, recycled from salon wastes and dog groomers, could be as good as synthetic fabrics at cleaning up crude oil spills on hard land surfaces.

“This is a very exciting finding for land managers who respond to spilled oil from trucks, storage tanks, or leaking oil pipelines. All of these land scenarios can be treated effectively with sustainable-origin sorbents,” UTS Environmental Scientist Dr Megan Murray said last month, commenting on the research published in the magazine Environments.

“The research concluded that, for now, sandy environments like coastal beaches can still benefit from the use of polypropylene sorbents, but further exploration of sustainable-origin sorbents is planned,” the UTS said.

For oil spills in water, scientists have found that there are oil-eating bacteria that could help clean oil spills at sea.

While researchers look to find the ultimate oil spill clean-up method, environmentalists say there is one way to stop oil spills once and for all—stop using oil.

“There is no guaranteed safe way to extract, transport and store fossil fuel products. This oil leak is not a twist of fate, but the choice of our twisted addiction to fossil fuels. We must react by accelerating our withdrawal from fossil fuels,” Happy Khambule, Greenpeace Africa Senior Climate and Energy Campaign Manager, said in a statement commenting on the Mauritius oil spill.

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