Ski Wax: Extra Speed Could Carry More than Just a Steep Price Tag
Fluorinated ski waxes give competitors an extra edge. But these waxes contain and release chemicals that do not degrade in the environment and have been found in people, fish and wildlife around the world.
By Brendon Bosworth, 2-14-11
||The difference: The left ski is treated with basic hydrocarbon wax, while the right one has a high fluorinated wax that makes the water bead up. But what else is it doing to people, the snowpack and, ultimately, water supplies?
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.
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.