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And the oil from BP's spill is coating many things - sea turtles, brown pelicans, human hands - and the dishwashing detergent Dawn is being used to clean all of them. It contains something, though, that you may find surprising. NPR's Elizabeth Shogren has the story.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN: At a warehouse turned bird bathhouse in Venice, Louisiana, dozens of bottles of Dawn stand like soldiers behind a row of deep sinks. It takes three people as much as an hour to get the gooey oil off each pelican. They start by rubbing the bird with cooking oil.

Veterinarian Heather Nevill says that loosens the sticky petroleum. Then one of them sprays it with dish liquid.

Dr. HEATHER NEVILL (Veterinarian): She's scrubbing very vigorously getting her fingertips under those feathers to really agitate the feathers in the water. And it's that action of getting the detergent into the feathers that really removes the oil.

SHOGREN: The bird is covered with lots of suds.

Dr. NEVILL: We're using very heavy concentrations of Dawn because this crude oil has become very weathered and it's very difficult to remove.

SHOGREN: Does it have to be Dawn?

Dr. NEVILL: So, Dawn definitely works the best. It very effectively removes grease but does not cause harm to the skin of the birds.

SHOGREN: Nevill and the rest of the folks who work for the International Bird Rescue Research Center sound like walking commercials for Dawn. And that's not new.

My colleague, Daniel Zwerdling, discovered this when he interviewed the group's founder, Alice Berkner, during the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska in 1989.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: You're going to get letters from Ivory and the other companies.

Ms. ALICE BERKNER (Founder, International Bird Rescue Research Center): You know, I hate to sound like an advertisement, but I won't allow any substitutes for Dawn.

SHOGREN: And in the BP spill, Dawn isn't just for birds. Even boat captains swear by it. Kirk Prest ferries biologists through the oily waters. He says he uses Dawn all the time.

Mr. KIRK PREST: Just to clean my hands several times during the day.

SHOGREN: Why Dawn?

Mr. PREST: It cuts the oil the best out of the different soaps. I would say most of the folks that are working this clean up know that.

SHOGREN: Even before the Deepwater Horizon exploded, Proctor and Gamble was using Dawn's oil spill credentials to sell the detergent.

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified Woman: If this bird could talk, she'd tell you how Dawn saved her life.

SHOGREN: That campaign is raising half a million dollars for wildlife groups.

Dawn spokeswoman Susan Baba say all the attention Dawn is receiving because of the spill helps get out the message that Dawn is a strong cleaner with a gentle touch.

Ms. SUSAN BABA (Spokeswoman, Dawn): This tension between toughness and mildness has always been something that, you know, that's kind of challenging to communicate to consumers. So, in a communications standpoint, it's been great.

SHOGREN: She says the reason Dawn is so good at cleaning birds without hurting them is that it was designed to erase grease from dishes without harming hands. The exact formula is secret, but she says the key is balancing the surfactants - the chemicals that cut grease.

What the company doesn't advertise - and these days is reluctant to admit - is that the grease-cutting part of the potion is made of petroleum.

Mr. IAN THOLKING (Proctor and Gamble): To make the best product out there, you have to have some in there.

SHOGREN: Proctor and Gamble's Ian Tholking says less than one-seventh of Dawn comes from petroleum.

Mr. THOLKING: To say, hey, this Dawn's horrible because of this, that doesn't make a whole lot of sense. And that's what we're trying to avoid because we're not trying to do something evil here.

Mr. MARTIN WOLF (Chemist, Seventh Generation): I think it's extremely ironic.

SHOGREN: Martin Wolf is a chemist for Seventh Generation, which makes a dish liquid without petroleum.

Mr. WOLF: Here we are trying to squeeze every last drop of oil we can out of the earth and its despoiling the earth. And we're using that same product that's messing up the earth to clean it up.

SHOGREN: Wolf says his company sent a truckload of oil-free detergent to the Gulf, but he's hasn't heard that anyone has used it.

Veterinarian Heather Nevill knows there are greener cleaners, but she says none of them have Dawn's magic.

Do you have a special connection to Dawn now, to use it when you're at home too?

Dr. NEVILL: You're not supposed to ask questions like that to an eco-hippie.

SHOGREN: And besides, Nevill says, Procter and Gamble donates tons of the sudsy stuff. So, she has lots of it left over around the house.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News.

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