Environmentally-friendly Antifouling Paint Test

Posted by Darrell Nicholson at 05:02PM - Comments: (0)

January 28, 2010

Whether or not you’re on the eco-train, it seems only a matter of time before we’ll all be shuffled aboard, at least when it comes to bottom paint.

The eco-trendsetter of the cosmos, California, has for several years been trying to decide how it will address the problem of residual copper in its harbors and marinas. Clearly, antifouling paint for recreational boats is a big blip on regulatory radar.

The bottom paint update coming up in the March issue of Practical Sailor will feature more than a dozen new antifouling paints, and many of them are no-copper or low-copper varieties. While paint manufacturers could potentially save a bundle by reducing the copper content in their paints, the costs associated with bringing an effective alternative biocide to the market are a big impediment. (No, simply adding cayenne to a cheap bottom paint doesn’t work.) If there is to be any motion in a green-paint direction, government policy will be the prime mover.

Fortunately, the federal government and the state of California is not yet so broke that they can’t toss a few nickels to bottom paint studies. In the latest phase of a project that dates back several years, the Port of San Diego, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the San Diego area’s regional water-quality agencies have pooled resources to research alternative antifouling paints. The latest nudge in the “green” direction came last month as the Port of San Diego decided to back regional requirements calling for a 10-percent reduction of copper content in the local waters by 2012. Ultimately, San Diego’s regional water commissions want a 76-percent reduction by 2022.

Although high levels of copper are clearly being recorded in and around the marinas of San Diego, in particular Shelter Island Yacht Basin, the impact of this copper on marine life has not yet been fully documented. I don’t like the idea of dumping anything into the ocean that doesn’t belong there, but after Rhode Island declared all of its state waters a “no discharge zone,” I always worry that boaters are getting a bum rap for shore-based problems.

In my view, the move to copper-free bottom paint for recreational boats is a done deal. California will be a copper-free bottom paint state by 2025, if not sooner. The rest of the nation’s coastal states will soon follow, moving west to east. If you’re a marine environmental policy wonk like me, there’s plenty of data to crunch. The Scripps Research Institute is nearing conclusion of a $174,000 study on the effects of copper on marine life in San Diego harbor. We can expect a report by mid-summer. The recently released update is available.

For more information on the San Diego testing program, check out the port authority update.

The port has also produced an interesting video of the project here.

The good news is that the preliminary results of Practical Sailor’s bottom-paint test panels, after six months of submersion in Florida, showed several no-copper paints successfully held barnacles at bay. In fact, two of the no-copper paint samples were virtually devoid of any growth. The bad news is that we’ve seen this before, and it doesn’t last. In our past studies, the best low-copper paints typically appear to lose their potency at around the 15-18- month mark, while the best copper-laden paints stretch protection another 6-months or more. Indeed, a look at the results of our long-term test panels, also coming up in the March issue of Practical Sailor, bear this out.

While the right formula for an ec0-friendly paint remains elusive, I’m glad to see the manufacturers, scientists, and government officials stepping up their research into new antifouling agents. Only through projects like the one in San Diego will have any hope of finding a safer, cleaner, and hopefully, cheaper alternatives to copper.

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