Can ski wax be harmful to the environment?
March 11, 2016
With so much concern about the environment and personal health up here in Summit, why do we keep using PFC-based ski waxes? I think about the huge amounts that end up in our water supply come the spring melt and how toxic these waxes are to our health. So why is no one discussing this issue?
Good question Jason. This topic is certainly something that flies under the radar, even within a ski community such as our own.
Perfluorochemicals (PFCs) are present in various non-stick coatings, water-resistant textiles, fire-fighting foam and in fluorinated ski waxes. Animal studies have shown toxic effects on the immune, liver and endocrine systems. PFCs tend to bioaccumulate, therefore posing a larger risk when exposed to contaminated water or food, such as fish.
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Fluorinated ski waxes are created by stripping hydrocarbon molecules of their hydrogen and replacing them with fluorines. They work so well because of their ability to repel water and reduce friction. The additional speed provided by fluorinated ski wax can make the difference for racers looking to shave time.
The gasses and particles emitted during the waxing process have been shown to enter people's system and stay for a long time. Studies have shown ski technicians having blood level PFC concentrations around 45 times that of the normal populace. Risks to the person waxing skis can be greatly reduced with the use of ventilators, ventilated waxing rooms and proper cleaning. However, what about the PFCs that then get into our snow from skiing itself? The EPA does not have a database of water bodies containing high PFC levels that could then be compared, for possible correlation, to popular skiing locations.
There could certainly be a fear of contamination by a "thousand cuts," but the good news is that the majority of "cuts" do not contain PFCs. Most people are not skiing or riding with a fluorinated ski wax. The vast majority of recreational skiers and boarders are using a hydrocarbon wax. If you go to your local ski shop for a wax, unless you specify or even bring your own fluorinated wax, you will have a hydrocarbon wax applied. This wax comes close to the performance of a fluorinated wax at one-half to one-fourth the cost of a fluorinated wax. Swix's "CH" line or Toko's "NF" line for example are some of the top sellers overall in the wax industry and are traditional hydrocarbon waxes.
A traditional hydrocarbon wax is petroleum-based. So while the waxing process poses less risk to the waxer, there still may be some environmental aspects that are not ideal. Our increasing knowledge of these dangers has therefore created an emerging natural-wax industry.
Many soy-based wax companies have come and gone, the durability and performance of these waxes have so far been met with less than stellar reviews. Different companies are out there trying to improve their natural wax products and some are finding more promising results.
Colorado's own Purl wax company is showing success with their natural and biodegradable wax. Dissatisfied with the results of soy waxes, they instead created a hydrocarbon wax derived from vegetables instead of the traditional petroleum. They have even been able to keep their price equal to or even a little cheaper than Swix's CH hydrocarbon line.
So for the recreational alpine skier or boarder, strong alternatives already exist. The use of fluorinated ski wax appears more common in the recreational cross-country ski world. The small gains in glide for each stride arguably makes a larger cumulative difference when cross-country skiing for people just trying to enjoy the day. In the racing world, Alaska high school Nordic teams have recently banned the use of fluorinated ski wax in all non-championship races citing their health risks and high costs. Additionally, by doing this, the ski preparation becomes greatly simplified, giving the coaches more time to coach and bringing the race back to the skiing itself, not the ski preparation.
Before we overreact against fluorocarbon-based ski wax, we need to remember that human testing on their affects is limited and can be mitigated with proper application processes. For now, they are still the fastest waxes available. However, by starting this discussion we can increase the awareness and demand for safer high performance wax alternatives.
Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at firstname.lastname@example.org.