“What goes on inside the tent is sort of secret and voodooish,” Whitehouse said.
He added that events for youngsters may present a special risk. “The junior racers, the parents are there trying to tune their skis, do the best they can. And they probably don’t have much information on safety.”
The popular sports of junior ski and snowboard racing draw thousands of young competitors across the country. Most ski resorts have at least a few teams, with serious racing starting at about nine years old.
Bay Area parent Erle Flad, whose 13-year-old daughter is on the race team at the Dodge Ridge ski resort in Pinecrest, Calif., agreed that many of the parents at junior racing events don’t use high-fluoro race wax correctly. “They’re all going crazy, scraping and brushing and overlaying their kids’ skis to make them as fast as possible.”
Flad, who has been going to junior races since his oldest child, now 23, was on the team, said he never sees parents using a respirator when applying wax. Still, he thinks PFC exposure is mainly a concern at big events like the World Cup, where several waxers work together in close quarters all day, rather than “Dads doing their kids’ skis generally the night before in the motel room, in the condo.”
PFC exposure is just one of the potential health risks facing professional ski waxers. Breathing high levels of airborne dust and particles, especially tiny nanoparticles, could lead to respiratory and cardiovascular disease, Nilsson added.
Interestingly, while both groups of researchers detected measurable levels of airborne PFCs in the workrooms, neither found enough to account for the high concentrations in the technicians’ blood. So Nilsson and colleagues tested the air samples for “precursor” chemicals known to break down into PFOA and PFNA. One stood out – 8:2 FTOH, a member of a volatile, highly reactive class of chemicals used as manufacturing agents. Concentrations were as much as 800 times greater than PFOA in the workroom air, leading researchers to conclude that biotransformation of the 8:2 FTOH fumes that waxers inhaled day after day was the main source of the PFOA and PFNA found in their blood.
“Knowing more about the metabolism is extremely important,” said Arnold Schecter, professor of environmental science at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Dallas, who was not associated with the project. “We need to know how this is getting into people.”
This biotransformation may become a growing source of PFC contamination in the future, as companies phase out use of PFOA and other perfluorinated chemicals, according to Nilsson. “Many industries have replaced their perfluorinated materials with telomer alcohols,” she said, “so the indirect human exposure to PFOA through telomer alcohols may very well increase.”
Ski workrooms are not the only place affected by PFCs in wax, said Nilsson. In an upcoming paper, she plans to publish data on PFC levels in snow.
“The wax definitely rubs off on the snow,” she said. She is also concerned about what happens to all the wax shavings at the end of the day. “Many kilos… end up on the floor in the cabins and are simply being put in the trash.”
Cheryl Katz is a freelance science writer based in Berkeley, California.
Environmental Health News commissioned this story by InvestigateWest, a non-profit journalism studio focused on the environment, public health and social justice in western North America.