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Know the West

For skiers, there’s a contaminant underfoot

Premium wax is affecting alpine food webs.

 

With their legs and toes kicking away at the snow underneath them and their arms levering their ski poles, Austin Caldwell’s University of Colorado Boulder Nordic Team will lay it all on the line in tomorrow’s race. As they reach for each millisecond, they’ll face a gravitational force field bent on slowing them down, even as they concentrate on the muscle work needed to pass their opponents. They try not to worry about how well their skis are sliding.

That particular worry should be assuaged by Caldwell and the other coaches, who will test an array of waxes the day before the race in search of the perfect blend for the weather and snow conditions. “Ski wax can make or break a race,” Caldwell said.

For Nordic skiers and high-level alpine racers, every fraction of a second counts, and the interface between ski and snow is a critical piece of gear. As skiers compete and coaches jockey for advantages, the focus on wax choice becomes borderline religious.

Snow blows at Aspen Mountain in Colorado, where a less-toxic ski wax process is now in use.
Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

But this zeal has a blind spot. New research suggests that a lot of ski waxes — and especially the premium waxes used at the sport’s highest levels — are contaminating alpine food webs as they slough off around ski areas.

A November 2019 study, published in the American Chemical Society’s Environmental Science and Technology journal, tested soil, earthworms and small rodents called bank voles living near a Nordic ski area in Norway, in search of perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. Voles within the ski area had as much as six times the amount of PFAS in their livers as voles outside it, and the ski area’s earthworms had similarly elevated numbers. That could mean bad news for predators, as PFAS levels generally accumulate higher up the food chain. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, PFOA and PFOS — just two types of chemical classes and both among the compounds found in the study’s samples — have been linked to reproductive and developmental problems, liver and kidney issues, immune system effects and cancer.

The chemicals don’t just accumulate on hillsides and in nearby wildlife, they also linger in the blood of ski technicians.

The chemicals don’t just accumulate on hillsides and in nearby wildlife, they also linger in the blood of ski technicians. A 2011 study showed that technicians waxing skis for high-level World Cup Nordic athletes had PFOA levels in their blood up to 45 times higher than the general population.

These chemicals, which are also found in Teflon and other anti-stick coatings as well as firefighting foams, rely on a stable fluorine-carbon bond to repel other substances. The fluorine-rich waxes (often called “fluoro” or “high-fluoro” waxes) used at the higher levels of Nordic and alpine skiing make skis stick less to wet snow. They also slowly fall off ski bases and enter watersheds. The same stability that makes a pan easy to clean and skis glide faster means that PFAS take a very long time to break down in the environment.

With greater awareness of the impact of wax on ski techs and the environment, some companies and resorts are seeking alternatives. Aspen Mountain, which in the past has led ski industry activism on climate change and renewable energy, took a step away from waxes entirely by treating its rental fleet with ski manufacturer DPS’ one-time Phantom Treatment. The treatment utilizes different chemical bonds that permanently adhere to ski bases and are less prone to leaching into the environment.

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Other companies are looking at ways to make all waxes more environmentally friendly. While most waxes don’t have PFAS, they are petroleum-based and leach out into the environment as they wear off skis. “It’s a micropollution problem,” said Peter Arlein, CEO of the plant-based wax company mountainFLOW. Individually, the impact is small, but with nearly 60 million people heading to the slopes annually, the problem gets bigger. “If they’re each waxing their skis a couple times a year, that suddenly becomes millions of pounds of impact,” he said. “It’s not like you can see the chemicals in the snow behind you as you ski away.”

With new research showing the harmful impacts of PFAS, high-fluoro waxes have been recently hit with a wave of regulations. Various skiing governing bodies, including local racing leagues and, in November, the International Ski Federation, have banned certain categories of fluoro ski waxes. Even the Environmental Protection Agency has been examining the waxes for violations of the Toxic Substances Control Act.

But back in the racing world, coaches like Caldwell think there’s a long way to go. Without a good way to test for the PFAS in waxes, it’s relatively simple to get away with using them, he said. And because there aren’t effective standards of enforcement, many skiers aren’t willing to use the safer, more environmentally friendly, but slower, waxes that could put them at a disadvantage. “People are hesitant to drop them,” he said, simply because they don’t want to be left behind.    

Ryan Wichelns is a Colorado-based freelance writer who prefers to let gravity do the work when he skis. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor