The Gulf Oil Spill: How to Help

Disjointed cleanup efforts and hazardous chemical exposures are making it hard for volunteers to get involved, but here are a few ways to make a difference.

June 4, 2010

In May the U.S. Coast Guard conducted a controlled burn in the Gulf. U.S. Navy photo by Petty Office 2nd Class Justin Stumburg.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—The seemingly endless images of gushing oil pouring from the broken pipe under the Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico are depressing, to say the least. As BP, the Coast Guard, the National Guard, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) clamor to stop the leak, countless other organizations and individuals are jumping in to help. You can, too. Here are some ideas:


#1: Send nylons, not hair. A small California nonprofit, Matter of Trust, launched a highly publicized effort last month to collect human and animal hair from salons and farms to send to the gulf to be used in "hair booms." Volunteers filled long tubes of recycled nylons with the hair, which were then deployed in oily water to help absorb the spilled petroleum. However, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and BP have asked Matter of Trust to stop sending hair, as the commercial booms they were using were more efficient. Turns out the hair often absorbed as much water as oil, and the nylon tubes sank to the sea floor, threatening bottom-dwelling aquatic life. Still, Matter of Trust believes its hair booms will be useful in later stages of the cleanup. However, the organization is no longer accepting hair donations, and instead needs your old nylon stockings and pantyhose. Find out how and where to send them at

#2: Help oily birds. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and NOAA, birds have been hurt the most by the oil spill. Of the 612 oil-soaked birds found since the spill began, 527 had already died. Here's how you can help. If you live in the area, report any oily bird sightings to the FWS on its hotline at 866-557-1401. The FWS advises that you don't handle birds yourself. The oil can be toxic, and oiled birds are already stressed, so handling them could cause even greater harm. If you don't live near the coast, you can donate money to the International Bird Rescue Research Center or to Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research, a Delaware-based wildlife rescue operation. Composed of scientists and veterinarians, these two groups are working together and along with FWS to clean birds. BP is footing the bill for the cleanup efforts, but your donations will help support the missions of these groups and provide funds for future emergencies.

#3: Save the sea turtles. As with the bird calamity, the FWS and NOAA report that the majority (234 out of 278) of the affected sea turtles they've found were already dead. These numbers could rise, according to the Sea Turtle Restoration Project. Populations of one imperiled turtle species, the Kemp's Ridley, are now migrating from Florida along the Louisiana coast to beaches in Texas and Mexico, where they'll nest for the summer. You can donate to the Sea Turtle Restoration Project, and money will go to protecting the Texas and Mexico nesting areas. Through the group's website, you can send emails to government officials demanding a moratorium on offshore drilling so spills like this are less likely to happen in the future.

#4: Protect your land. Whether you live on the Gulf or not, the oil spill is damaging your property: the national parks. Eight national parks, memorials, and seashores lie in the path of the gushing oil, and if you watched Ken Burns' documentary on the national park system, America's Greatest Idea, you know full well that these beautiful spaces belong to all of us. These parks, including vast-but-besieged Everglades National Park in south Florida and Gulf Islands National Seashore in Mississippi, are home to a huge variety of sensitive areas, including sea grass beds (home to sea turtles and other sea life), mangrove forests and salt marshes that protect the coast, as well as archeological treasures like historic shipwrecks and war monuments. The National Parks Foundation (a charity set up to cover gaps between federal government funding and actual budgetary needs) has set up a disaster-recovery fund that will support the National Park Service's education and environmental monitoring efforts. No money will go toward the cleanup operations that BP is required to cover. The foundation is also asking for volunteers to register boats that can be used for cleanup and protection efforts. Learn more at

#5: Get on the list! The state governments of Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana have set up websites on which volunteers can register in case they're needed later in the cleanup. You can find these sites at But realize there's some risk involved. For example, despite requests from the EPA that BP stop using the controversial dispersant Corexit, BP has continued to do so, as the company insists it’s less toxic than the EPA thinks it is. Still, some cleanup workers have reported bouts of nausea, shortness of breath, and high blood pressure.

Tags: volunteering