Infused with progress

A state grant is helping Maine's glass boatbuilders stifle the ill effects of styrene

By Michael Crowley

Chemists call it C8H8. The guy off the street who steps into a boat shop knows it as an instant eye and throat irritant. Fiberglass lay-up crews deal with it by donning gloves, suits, respirators and sometimes, caps, although some workers feel they are immune to its effects and make little pretense about clothing themselves in protective garments.

The "it" is styrene, which Webster's describes as "a fragrant" — to put it mildly — "liquid unsaturated hydrocarbon" that is used in the resins that are integral to the construction of fiberglass boats.

In addition to protective gear, boat shops use fans to move styrene-laden air away from workers, and since styrene is heavier than air, some shops lay up hulls in split molds as opposed to a single mold so workers aren't laying down cloth and rolling out resin in an area heavy with styrene-laced air.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says styrene can have deleterious effects on a person's central nervous system that present themselves as headaches, fatigue, weakness and depression. But that's probably not as worrisome as another listing that says prolonged exposure to styrene may increase a person's risk for leukemia and lymphoma, as well as the likelihood of spontaneous abortion in women.

Nonetheless, some boat shop owners will tell you they know people who have been working with styrene for 10, 20 even 30 years and don't seem to be showing any ill effects.

There are methods of building fiberglass boats that reduce styrene levels but until recently, these have been the province of builders of high-end yachts. Builders of fishing boats haven't paid much attention to them because they're very costly.

But that's changing as boatbuilders recognize that within a few years, the federal government will be forcing boat shops to improve their air quality.

"There are a whole bunch of air quality standards that are coming down. They haven't made it here yet, but it will be a problem and we will be forced into [changing]," says Bruce Grindle, general manager at H&H Marine in Steuben, Maine. This will affect hull finishers as well as the builders of hulls and molded decks and houses.

Expense, concerns about learning curves, and comfort with existing practices all work against boat shops changing their ways.

But for builders of fiberglass boats in Maine, the state has a solution that could make for an easier, less costly transition to a boatbuilding technology that won't run afoul of air-emission standards: closed- mold infusion.

The driving force behind the transition may prove to be the awarding of a $14.8 million Workforce Innovation in Regional Economic Development grant, commonly called WIRED, in February 2006.

A collection of stories from guest authors.

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