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All ski waxes are not created equal. Seasoned competitors know it’s unlikely a standard block of wax will suffice when it comes to reaching the velocity needed to win professional events. Fluorinated waxes, which come as blocks or powders, help speed demons get their fixes. But the synthetic compounds that give these products their water-repellant qualities remain under investigation for their potential health effects. Like many nonstick pans, “fluoro” waxes contain perfluorocarbons or PFCs. To help shave more seconds off the clock, some have Teflon mixed in. Some of the chemicals in the PFC family, such as PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid), which is used to manufacture Teflon and Gore-Tex, are practically immortal. PFOA does not biodegrade. Instead, it endures in the environment and has been found in fish, birds, wildlife and people around the world, even in Arctic polar bears. People are most likely exposed to PFCs through drinking tainted water, eating contaminated food or using PFC-containing products, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In a study on more than 2,000 participants, the CDC found PFCs in nearly all those tested.

Ski Wax: Extra Speed Could Carry More than Just a Steep Price Tag

All ski waxes are not created equal. Seasoned competitors know it’s unlikely a standard block of wax will suffice when it comes to reaching the velocity needed to win professional events. Fluorinated waxes, which come as blocks or powders, help speed demons get their fixes. But the synthetic compounds that give these products their water-repellant qualities remain under investigation for their potential health effects.

Like many nonstick pans, “fluoro” waxes contain perfluorocarbons or PFCs. To help shave more seconds off the clock, some have Teflon mixed in. Some of the chemicals in the PFC family, such as PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid), which is used to manufacture Teflon and Gore-Tex, are practically immortal. PFOA does not biodegrade. Instead, it endures in the environment and has been found in fish, birds, wildlife and people around the world, even in Arctic polar bears.

People are most likely exposed to PFCs through drinking tainted water, eating contaminated food or using PFC-containing products, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In a study on more than 2,000 participants, the CDC found PFCs in nearly all those tested.

Research into the possible human health effects of PFOA exposure is ongoing. But tests on lab animals have linked exposure to high levels of PFCs with changes in hormone levels, liver damage, cancer and birth defects.

“Studies of exposure to PFOA and adverse health outcomes in humans are inconclusive at present,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency. However, after reviewing the EPA’s 2005 draft assessment of the human health effects of PFOA, 75 percent of the organization’s Science Advisory Board felt it should be labeled as “likely to be carcinogenic to humans.”

Even though the impacts of the compound are still being evaluated, the EPA has introduced a PFOA Stewardship Program, aimed at eliminating industry emissions of PFOA and its precursor chemicals by 2015.

European Studies Focus on Professional Ski Wax Technicians

Last year, two European studies highlighted that PFCs build up within professional ski wax technicians who spend their workdays prepping skis for national competitors. Operating in close quarters, often with inadequate ventilation, the technicians inhaled fumes released when melting waxes with hot irons, as well as tiny particles of wax dust.

A Norwegian study assessed 13 technicians working the 2008 and 2009 World Cup seasons. The researchers found they had roughly 10 to 40 times higher median concentrations of certain perfluorochemicals, also found in the workroom air, in their serum than the general population. PFOA was found at the highest concentrations: 25 times above regular background levels.

Dr. Baard Freberg, based at Norway’s National Institute of Occupational Health and team medical doctor for Norway’s national biathlon teams, was lead author of this study.

He began a pilot study in 2006 after waxers complained about asthma-like symptoms, itching skin, eye irritation, fever, headaches and vomiting, even though they’d started using full-face respirators as he’d instructed in 2001. “The waxers had become suspicious about some new powders [they were using],” he said via email.

A Swedish study focused on eight technicians from the U.S. and Swedish national cross-country teams. The results suggest that technicians could be producing PFOA in their blood, after breathing in a fluorotelomer alcohol (8:2 FTOH). The alcohol is released during the waxing process and was found in concentrations up to 800 times higher that PFOA in air samples taken from waxing cabins. 8:2 FTOH is a known as a “precursor compound” since it can break down to form PFOA. This transformation has been shown to occur in rats.

In their previous study the researchers found higher PFC levels in technicians who’d been in the business for longer than newer recruits.

Should Self-Waxers be Concerned?

The technicians in the Swedish study spent 30 hours a week melting, spreading and scraping fluorinated wax in cloistered conditions. The average skier or snowboarder, tuning their equipment every few weeks before a weekend session, comes nowhere near that type of exposure. But fluoro waxes should still be handled with care.

“We have maintained for years now that people who work with perfluorocarbons should wear a mask and it is not a bad idea to use a mask when hot waxing in general if the room is not well ventilated,” said Ian Harvey, brand manager for Toko wax company, via email. “I recommend a full face mask as they are more comfortable and also keep the eyes clean of dust from waxing.”

On its website, Swix, a large international producer of ski wax, emphasizes that fluorocarbon waxes can release poisonous gases if heated above 570 degrees and should not be exposed to open flames.

Freberg recommends using respirators, even if not dealing with fluorinated waxes, to prevent inhalation of nano sized particles of wax dust. He also advises against eating and smoking inside waxing areas.

Natural Alternatives

Most standard waxes are made from petroleum or paraffin, byproducts of crude oil. Some incorporate other “slip agents” besides PFCs, such as graphite, molybdenum and silicone. On every run down the slopes, bits of wax flake off skis and snowboards, building up in the snowpack, eventually working their way into runoff when snow melts.

“A lot of people say, well, it’s just a little bit, it’s not that much, but over the years it can build up,” says Greg Barker, CEO of Nevada-based Enviro Mountain Sports, which makes natural waxes.

The U.S. ski industry recorded close to 60 million visits over the 2009-2010 season. Barker estimates that each skier or boarder deposits about three-quarters of an ounce of wax during a typical visit. That amounts to potentially 2.8 million pounds of wax entering mountain snow across the country each year, using these figures.

“Think about the snow under the lift line: Reach down there and take a cup of that snow and melt it – do you want to drink that?” he says.

Scott Sparks, owner of Colorado-based Purl Wax, which produces a natural wax, Ice 9, does not deny that fluoro waxes are incredibly fast when properly matched to the snow conditions. But, like Barker, he’s concerned about their long-lived compounds entering water streams.

“While an argument could be made that fluoro based waxes are a necessary evil for the ski racing world, the large majority of wax is used on rental fleets. There is absolutely no reason to use fluorinated waxes on rental fleets,” Sparks said in an email.

According to Sparks, Ice 9 contains none of the ingredients found in traditional wax. It is made from natural compounds that have similar ultra-hydrophobic (water repellant) properties to the synthetic ones found in fluoro waxes. These are nontoxic, biodegradable and renewable, he said.

Enviro Mountain Sports uses hydrogenated plant and vegetable oils to make their wax. They initially used soy as a base ingredient, but this did not work well across a broad enough temperature range, Barker explains.

Likewise, Purl does not use soy oil because it is not durable enough, said Sparks.

Barker is so confident in the harmlessness of his company’s wax that he says he’d eat a bite of it. He has fried an egg in melted oil from the wax and eaten it, he says.

About Brendon Bosworth

Comments

  1. Dave Skinner says:

    Now, I can see the race team guys, in the hole under the bullwheel usually set aside for this stuff, with all sorts of fifty grand per gram World Cup potions, but give me a break.
    How many kajillion gallons or tons of water are on the mountain? How many ounces of wax in a season?
    I waxed my boards EVERY night for years, and maybe used four or five pounds of wax at the absolute maximum. It doesn’t take much if the ski is loaded and maintained. 3/4 ounce per day per gaper that gets one “hot wax” per season? Nah. We’d see these people once to get the rust off their edges, the fuzz off the base, and we’d BEG them to come in after so we could protect their gear over the summer.
    As for the lift line, that’s where people hock goobers, blow lungers, have a smoke….and most of that is “natural.”

  2. Scott Sparks says:

    Regarding the volume of wax that ends up in the watershed…

    I work for Purl Wax. An average shop is ordering about 50 pounds of wax per season for their rental fleet. We currently supply about 200 shops with wax. That is close to 10,000 pounds. We are a small player in the wax industry so I imagine a lot of wax does actually end up in the snow. I think it is important to choose a biodegradable product.

    Great article!

  3. Greg Barker says:

    Regarding the Potential Volume of Wax.

    The 2.8 million pounds of wax may sound like an exaggeration, or an over estimate, but that is the “potential” amount during this season. If you look the averages of what it takes to wax alpine skis and snowboards by your average recreational skier or boarder. There is a lot of waste during the actual waxing procedure, and not every skier or boarder waxes their equipment regularly. Some of it ends up scraped off on the floor of the wax room, some in the trash, and some tracked out of the wax room on the bottom of shoes. So, if we don’t actually use that much toxic wax does that make it ok? The potential is there, and there are chemicals going into the going to the snowpack of some of our most pristine mountains and rivers year after year. Some people think that the amount of toxic wax used each year is not enough to worry about, but small amounts of pollution by large amounts of people year after year can add up to an environmental problem that should not be ignored. We believe that if there is a good all natural alternative then why not use it!

    Great Feature, most people don’t think or know about this problem.

  4. Hugh Shakeshaft says:

    I don’t know the specifics of the perfluorochemicals, but I understand how persistent they are in the environment. I come at this as a cross-country skier. The American Birkiebiner is tomorrow and there will be approximately 10,000 skiers on a trail a couple hundred feet wide, many of which will leave a trail of these chemicals behind for years and for what? To earn a better time at the expense of the environment? To me, it should be looked at as a performance enhancing drug. It provides a competitive advantage but is toxic. Why not simply level the playing field with non-toxic wax? The funny thing is so many of us who ski the Birkie advocate for the environment but overlook the pollution we are causing. I Googled this topic because I suspected it was occurring and had not thought of the downhill ski resort aspect. 3M (Scotchguard) has a major cleanup from similar compounds in the Minneapolis area. It has migrated some distance in adjacent aquifers. All I know is I’m glad I don’t have a shallow ground water well near the Birkie Trail. Perfluoro chemicals should be abolished from all ski waxes. In the end, we’ll have a cleaner environment and a better workout.

    Note-All of my statements are completely unqualified.