What's in your ski wax? Slippery coating may be toxic
Daily Camera - January 13, 2008
By Laura Snider
When the snow falls heavy and wet, the sharp Nordic ski racer -- knowing that a carefully cooked combination of waxes tailor-made for the conditions can be the difference between winning and losing -- coats her skis with a "fluorinated" wax.
The fluorine-containing chemicals in some ski waxes -- called perfluorochemicals or PFCs -- are in the same family as the magical ingredient that puts the "non-stick" in Teflon cookware.
Both make sliding luxuriously easy, whether it's an egg off a skillet or skis over the snow, and both concern toxicologists who have learned that some form of PFCs can now be found in the blood of almost all Americans, even newborns.
The Environmental Protection Agency says a derivative of some PFCs called perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, is a possible carcinogen.
How the contaminants get into our blood -- and how big a contribution ski wax may make -- is difficult to pin down. Fluorinated chemicals are found in all kinds of household products, from stain-resistant carpets and children's clothes to Gore-Tex, Teflon and even microwave popcorn bags.
Even if the total contribution of toxins from the ski industry is relatively small, fluorinated ski wax may be of special concern because any wax rubbed off on the snow surface will eventually melt directly into the water supply.
It's not likely that fluorinated ski waxes will be easily given up by ski racers -- at least not until all racers go without.
When the snow is wet, you can't win without it.
"It's a huge difference," said Peter Abraham, who works at Boulder Nordic Sport. "It's a little unfair because the fluorinated waxes are pretty expensive."
Expensive as in the ballpark of $135 for 30 grams of pure fluorocarbon, meaning all you get are the connected carbons and fluorine atoms without any dilution from the standard (and cheaper) paraffin waxes.
"It's more expensive than cocaine," Abraham joked.
But fluorinated waxes may have even more hidden costs that won't disappear for decades.
PFOAs essentially do not break down in the environment, according to the EPA. Instead, the substance builds up in the bodies of animals and humans over time. Aside from being found in humans, PFOAs have been discovered in dolphins off the coast of Florida and polar bears in the Arctic.
The EPA fined Dupont, the manufacturer of Teflon, for failing to report information it had about PFOAs as required under the Toxic Substances Control Act. Even so, the EPA has not recommended that consumers quit using products that contain PFOAs despite acknowledging that the chemical has caused tumors and other "adverse developmental effects" in lab animals.
Just how much fluorinated ski wax is out there, possibly making its way into our bodies, is anyone's guess.
Almost everyone's skis are waxed, but some people never wax their skis again after they purchase them, some skiers wax after a handful of days at the resort and professional ski racers may wax before every single run. And, though the vast majority of ski waxes are derived from petroleum, many are not fluorinated.
Boulder Ski Deals, for instance, doesn't use fluorinated wax when tuning downhill skis and snowboards.
However, Enviro Mountain Sports, which promotes its own "environmentally friendly" brand of soy-based waxes, estimates that 2.2 million pounds of toxic chemicals from ski and snowboard wax will end up on the slopes this winter.
Most of the PFOAs from fluorinated wax may actually be released before the wax ever makes it to the skis, according to Kirstan Markey, a research analyst for the Environmental Working Group in Washington, D.C.
Although there's some evidence that the nearly indestructible PFOAs make their way into our blood through the water supply, Markey said most of the PFOAs from fluorinated wax are likely used in the product's creation.
Fluorinated ski waxes are dangerous when you apply them as well.
There are clearly documented cases of people becoming ill from the fumes, Markey said. Professional waxers who travel with teams have known this for a while, and nearly everyone who applies fluorinated waxes wears a face mask.
"You're sitting there in the kitchen and you're putting it on your skis with the iron," Markey said, "and just like when you heat up a Teflon pan, you're inhaling some of the fumes. Essentially, what you're doing is coating your lungs with PFCs."
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There are over 8000 perfluorinated compounds manufactured today...
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