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Procter & Gamble win fans as birds in gulf oil spill are cleaned with Dawn soap

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By Melissa Bell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 17, 2010

The bird in the photograph is almost unrecognizable: It's a dark, dripping shape stuck in the sticky Deepwater Horizon spill. It's just one of what animal rescue organizations say could be thousands of birds caught in the oil flooding the Gulf of Mexico.

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For 32 years, the International Bird Rescue Research Center has had a surprise weapon in the battle against the oil: Dawn dishwashing detergent.

After a 1971 oil spill, the California-based nonprofit group began experimenting with products including paint thinner and nail polish remover to find the least traumatizing method for cleaning oiled animals. In 1978, the researchers settled on the blue liquid soap. They use a solution of up to 10 percent Dawn concentrate in water to cut through the grease. The solution is gentle enough to not harm the sensitive areas around animals' eyes and feathers.

Tens of thousands of animals have been cleaned by the mild formula in oil spills around the world, said Paul Kelway, a spokesman for the rescue center. In the gulf, 585 birds had been taken to cleaning stations as of June 14, and Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble, which makes Dawn, had sent 7,000 bottles to aid in the effort.

Dawn's role as the official de-oiler has been a marketing boon for Procter & Gamble. A commercial for its "Dawn Saves Wildlife" campaign shows oil-covered ducks and otters being cleaned with the product. The company donates $1 to saving wildlife for every bottle bought and registered online. Susan Baba, the Dawn brand spokeswoman, says the campaign will have raised $500,000 by the end of June.

The effort has generated goodwill in social media. The campaign's Facebook fan page had 241,132 fans as of June 15. Dawn's Twitter feed (@DawnDishSoap) was launched in May to meet demand for more up-to-the-minute news and had nearly 1,000 followers by the first week of June.

Some people, however, are not feeling particularly warm and bubbly toward Dawn. Because Dawn is a petroleum-based soap, critics are concerned that the bird rescue groups are fighting oil with oil. Ben Busby-Collins, the founder and chief executive of Ballard Organics Soap Co., says, "If we're trying to reduce our demand for oil and you're using a petroleum-based product, it's creating more demand."

Busby-Collins will be sending 1,000 bottles of his plant-based cleanser to animal rescue groups in the gulf in the hopes it will remove the oil as effectively as Dawn does.


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