BERKELEY, Calif. –A storm has dropped a big snow on Lake Tahoe resorts, and there’s a flurry of activity at the California Ski Company as hordes of skiers and snowboarders prepare to hit the slopes. In a cluttered workroom at the back of the shop, technician Bobby Panighetti is getting a pair of skis ready to make their first tracks – infusing the bottoms with a coat of hot wax. This essential ritual is being performed at winter sports centers around the world as the ski season gets underway.
Now scientific research suggests that ski wax can expose users to perfluorochemicals (PFCs) that build up in their bodies and may carry potentially serious health risks, including cardiovascular disease, liver damage, hormone disruption and cancer.
Racers, in particular, covet waxes with high amounts of fluorinated compounds because they make skis go faster. But that extra speed could come at a cost, especially to thousands of junior ski racers and parents who may layer on highly fluorinated race wax week after week without knowing how to handle it safely.
Two new studies, conducted in Sweden and Norway and published in September, found that wax technicians working for World Cup ski race teams had very high levels of PFCs in their blood. Their median levels of one compound, perfluorooctanoic acid or PFOA, were up to 45 times higher than the general population’s. The second-highest compound was perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA), a common contaminant in wildlife that is now on the rise in people.
Adding to the concern, one of the studies suggests that the technicians may be manufacturing PFOA and PFNA in their own bodies, metabolizing it after breathing in a common industrial chemical, fluorotelomer alcohol (FTOH), that was found in high quantities in the workroom air. That process, known as biotransformation, has been demonstrated in animal studies, and lead author Helena Nilsson of Sweden’s Orebro University said her group’s research now reveals for the first time “direct evidence of human biotransformation.”
The research provides a key piece to the puzzle of how PFCs build up in the human body, said Olga Naidenko, a senior scientist with the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization. “This study is really important because it shows that this process is happening in humans,” she said. “We already knew that it happens in animals.”
In shops, chalets and slope-side tents from the Sierra Nevada and the Rockies in the American West to the European Alps and beyond, legions of skiers and snowboarders are waxing up their gear before a big race or just a fun day on the mountain. A base saturated with wax is the key to making cross country and downhill skis and snowboards glide fluidly over snow, the prerequisite for speed.
The technicians in the studies used hot irons to melt layers of wax onto racers’ skis, then ironed the waxed surface to make it adhere, and scraped it smooth. The process, often performed in small, stuffy cabins, produces clouds of fumes, dust and airborne wax particles, which the World Cup team waxers inhaled for approximately 30 hours a week during the November-to-March race season.
Little information is available on the chemical composition of ski waxes, because companies closely guard their formulas. Most race waxes contain water-repellant additives known as “fluoro”, but manufacturers do not reveal whether these include the potentially harmful perfluorinated chemicals turning up in human blood. When the researchers in Norway analyzed 11 different race waxes, however, they found PFCs in every one.
Costing as much as $100 a gram, high-fluoro waxes are too expensive for most recreational skiers and boarders. But the products are in big demand at competitions, including junior race events.
“With the fluoro, we all know it’s a little bit on the nasty side,” said Greg Whitehouse, who owns California Ski Company in Berkeley. “We prefer to not be around it.”