Checking Chemical Safety


When we talk about safety and sailing, the topic inevitably focuses on seamanship, equipment, and maintenance, not potential health risks linked to harmful chemicals. In fact, one of the reasons many of us go sailing is to escape to a cleaner place.

In reality, we can’t fully escape the negative side effects of industrialization. Although our boats can deliver us to some of the most pristine places on the planet, the materials involved in building and maintaining a boat involve chemicals and practices that pose health risks and can harm the environment.

Some people will argue that some of these risks are overblown (or fake news) and that some risk of exposure to certain chemicals is an acceptable as the price for going boating. However, it is still important that sailors are aware of existing studies and of the availability of affordable substitutes that are proven to be less harmful.

Unfortunately, even seemingly safe substitutes can introduce new risks. A case in point is the chemical N-mehtylpyrrolidinone (NMP), which was introduced as replacement for methylene chloride, an active ingredient in paint strippers, a product we’ve looked at in several different reports (see the Inside Practical Sailor blog Digging into Bottom Paint Removal.)

According to several studies, NMP poses the greatest risk to pregnant women and women of child-bearing age who are exposed to high concentrations of NMP through coat or paint removal. Using gloves and a respirator will reduce the risk to those who are only occasionally exposed to NMP (less than four hours a day), but even these precautions will not adequately reduce the risk to people who work daily with NMP. You can read more about the proposed EPA rules to regulate NMP at

Drew Frye, who produced the report on boatyard chemical safety in this month’s Practical Sailor, is definitely not a shrill critic of the chemical industry. A chemical engineer who worked for many years in the petroleum field, he has not hesitated to call out green substitutes that have their own undesirable side effects, or those that are simply

ineffective in the marine environment. A good example of the latter is Frye’s study of vent filters for marine fuel tanks mandated by new EPA rules. (see EPA Mandate Sparks Fuel-vent Filter Test, January 2013).

Frye found that the EPA’s filter studies did not take into account factors that were specific to boating, so the new rules prompted the development of carbon filters that were rendered useless by moisture. These essentially useless filters are still being installed in some new boats, but Frye’s research inspired at least one maker to develop a fuel-vent filter that worked properly in wet, or humid environments.

I mention this because of the current political climate in which research carried out by the EPA, academic institutions, and others is increasingly held under suspicion, and more scientists are being criticized for alleged biases. To those who have questions about our own research, it can be tested. One of the reasons Practical Sailor publishes the admittedly dry How We Tested, section to most reports is so that others can replicate our experiments. These segments are often condensed for lack of space, but anyone interested in the full details of any test are free to contact me at

Darrell Nicholson
Practical Sailor has been independently testing and reporting on sailboats and sailing gear for more than 50 years. Supported entirely by subscribers, Practical Sailor accepts no advertising. Its independent tests are carried out by experienced sailors and marine industry professionals dedicated to providing objective evaluation and reporting about boats, gear, and the skills required to cross oceans. Practical Sailor is edited by Darrell Nicholson, a long-time liveaboard sailor and trans-Pacific cruiser who has been director of Belvoir Media Group's marine division since 2005. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license, has logged tens of thousands of miles in three oceans, and has skippered everything from pilot boats to day charter cats. His weekly blog Inside Practical Sailor offers an inside look at current research and gear tests at Practical Sailor, while his award-winning column,"Rhumb Lines," tracks boating trends and reflects upon the sailing life. He sails a Sparkman & Stephens-designed Yankee 30 out of St. Petersburg, Florida. You can reach him by email at