Once seen as miracles of modern chemistry, PFCs are compounds with fluorine atoms tightly bound to carbon chains. The results are slick molecules with remarkable endurance that also repel grease and water. Perfluorochemicals have long been prized for their ability to keep things from sticking, leading to wide use in coatings for household items such as non-stick cookware, stain-resistant furnishings and water-repellant clothing.
Because they do not break down naturally in the environment, PFCs are nearly indestructible. These chemicals are now found in wildlife and humans throughout the world. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which tracks chemical exposures in several thousand Americans each year, has found “measurable levels of PFOA and several other PFCs in nearly every person examined,” said Jay Dempsey, the CDC’s health communications specialist.
The main sources of exposure for the general population appear to be from consumer products, drinking water and food, according to the CDC. One compound, former Scotchgard ingredient perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), was phased out by 3M, its U.S. manufacturer, in 2000. U.S. industries also agreed in 2006 to begin phasing out PFOA, used in the manufacture of Teflon. But these pervasive substances continue to be found in variety of items, possibly as a manufacturing by-product.
In Sweden, the researchers followed eight technicians throughout the 2007-08 World Cup cross-country competitions, analyzing their blood and samples of the workroom air. In Norway, a research group led by Dag Ellingsen, of the Norwegian National Institute of Occupational Health, conducted similar analyses on 13 professional waxers during the 2008-09 World Cup season.
Both groups found high levels of PFOA and PFNA in the technicians’ blood. Both also found PFC levels rising with the number of years on the job, indicating that the compounds bioaccumulate in humans: piling up faster than the body can eliminate them.
“We cannot say how [the PFCs] will affect the waxers’ health later on,” said Nilsson, “but there are a number of biological alterations in relation to PFC exposure shown in animal studies.”
Research on the health effects of perfluorochemical exposure is still in the early stages, and most studies to date have focused on PFOA. The compound causes cancer in animal studies and the Environmental Protection Agency declared it “likely to be carcinogenic to humans.”
Epidemiological studies of people living near a West Virginia DuPont plant that manufactured PFOA have found elevated risks of a variety of health problems, including liver damage, birth defects, high cholesterol and excessive uric acid, which is linked to hypertension and strokes. One recent study of nearly 4,000 U.S. adults found an elevated rate of thyroid disease in those with the highest PFOA exposure. Animal tests also show that it may act as a hormone disruptor, mimicking estrogen. Much remains to be learned about this ubiquitous chemical.
While technicians in Norway and Sweden now work in specially designed, ventilated trucks, “most nations in ski competitions still have the traditional wax cabins with no or very poor ventilation,” Nilsson said.
For do-it-yourselfers, she advises: “Make sure that the room is ventilated. A [respirator] with a proper filter is also recommended.” She added, “there is no need to worry too much if one only intends to wax the occasional one or two pair.”
Concerns are greatest for professionals like those in the studies, who waxed as many as 20 pairs of skis a day.
At most resorts and shops like California Ski Company, wax is applied in a ventilated area that limits exposure to the fumes, according to Whitehouse. But at competitions, high-fluoro race waxes are used in a largely unregulated environment, he said.