Toxic ski wax creates sticky situation for international competitions and environment
Everyone enjoys the feeling of going fast while out on the slopes or out for a trek on a set of cross-country skis. The feeling is often exhilarating, breathtaking and a reason why people decide to continue the sport.
For those who are out on the mountain on a regular basis, they know the main force that helps a board or a pair of skis to go fast is a good wax job.
For the longest time, wax shops and competitive Alpine athletes have had very little restrictions on the type of wax they could use while on the slopes. However, in recent years guidelines and restrictions have started to emerge to protect the environment due to the toxic nature of certain waxes.
There are a group of waxes made up of fluorine that for years have provided unmatched speed for mostly elite-level winter sport athletes.
When these pricey fluorinated waxes, which are also often called fluorocarbon waxes, are applied correctly, it essentially creates a base that keeps out dirt, moisture and reduces friction, allowing the user to easily slide down the mountain.
The problem with fluorocarbon wax, and any wax in general, is that it comes off on the mountain as one skis or boards. This insoluble wax then enters the snowpack and eventually runs off into waterways as the snow melts.
The perfluorochemicals in this wax are reported to be toxic to not only animals but also humans, causing damage to the liver and immune and endocrine systems.
Due to the toxic effects of fluorocarbon waxes, U.S. Ski & Snowboard partnered with the International Ski Federation and the International Biathlon Union to ban the use of fluorinated ski wax from any competition in North America, starting at the beginning of the 2020-21 season.
This ban continued into the 2022 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games in Beijing, China. Before the games began, there were talks of a testing system being put in place in order to detect the use of fluorocarbon wax.
This testing system was necessary because even though Team USA was barred from using the wax due to its association with U.S. Ski & Snowboard, other countries hadn’t banned the wax in competition.
An on-site-testing system was supposed to be in place in time for the Winter Games in order to test the skis of Alpine, cross-country and biathlon skiers as well as snowboard cross athletes, but the testing wasn’t up to par in time.
The lack of testing ultimately led Team USA, and other countries in agreement with banning the use of the wax, to be at a slight disadvantage to other countries that might have deiced to use the hydrophobic, toxic wax at the 2022 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games.
No one can be certain what counties or individuals have been using the wax, but there is speculation among those who are knowledgeable about the sport, including Adaptive Action Sports Executive Director Daniel Gale, several medal winners at the Paralympic and Olympics used fluorocarbon wax on their skis or snowboards in order to give them a distinct advantage.
“It’s a convoluted thing because they enacted this rule but had no method in place in order to enforce it,” Gale said.
Gale had five athletes compete at the Paralympic Winter Games in snowboard cross and the banked slalom, two events where it matters how fast your board can go.
“When the ban was issued everyone was mostly on board because of the environmental impact it has on the watershed” Gale said. “But the issue comes when athletes start using the wax in competitions because there is no way to regulate it. The wax makes a huge difference to one’s performance.”
Gale believes until a testing system is put in place, all snowsports that are based off speed will continue to take place on a playing field that is not level.
The issue is similar to what the sport of swimming went through in 2009 when body-length suits were no longer permitted due to the how the suits created buoyancy and less drag.
One of the only solutions to this problem is to have a testing system in place or allow the use of the fluorocarbon wax for all competitors.
In terms of the waxes used at traditional ski shops, most are moving toward a more environmentally safe line of waxes.
However, Trevor Johnson at the Dillon Christy Sports says most of the these waxes still have some affect on the environment and that the biodegradable ones are very ineffective compared to the alternative.
Even if the biodegradable waxes, which are often made from hydrocarbon, are ineffective, there is a movement to make it the new go-to wax as many companies have emerged on the market.
Despite the movement toward eco-friendly waxes, the reality is that most buyers usually don’t look too deeply into the environmental impact of the wax that they are purchasing.
“Most of the time when they come in they are usually looking for wax or a wax that a friend may have recommended. I usually don’t get questions about the environmental impacts of it” Johnson said.
With most ski shops carrying petroleum-based waxes that are still somewhat damaging to the environment, the question remains if there will be a day when ski shops only carry soluble waxes.
“I don’t see any reason in the future why they would,” Johnson said. “As of right now, they are making money and that is the most important thing. Why change it if it would decrease profits?”
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