Toxic Wax

By on March 30, 2009
“I wouldn’t eat that if I were you.  It’s not good for you.”
Thus were the disapproving words of a pro skier I was following about a decade ago to improve my game. I looked up guiltily, cotton-mouthed with a handful of spring corn snow. Mortified, I didn’t question him, and I never ate inbounds snow again.
It turns out that, as in most things skiing, my friend knew what he was talking about. As the “green” movement gains momentum, deposits made by traditional ski waxes in the snow, our environment and watersheds is of increasing concern.
Traditionally, the most effective and widely manufactured waxes have been made with molybdenum, graphite, silicone or fluorocarbons. For warmer snow, fluorocarbon waxes are the most water repellent, efficient friction reduction you can get. But fluorine waxes have also been part of an environmental flap in recent years, after scrutiny of the chemicals involved in manufacturing fluorocarbons resulted in some unsettling findings by the U.S. government and European researchers.
The fluorocarbon molecule in fluoro-wax is a non-naturally occurring substance, created when hydrogen is stripped off petroleum-based hydrocarbon molecules and replaced with fluorines using a synthetic chemical, called perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). This is, so far, the most effective method for increasing durability and hydrophobia in a variety of consumer products, including ski wax. The more hydrophobia there is, the better the water repellent quality of a warm snow wax. In skiing, this method achieves the best times for ski racers, but it also has the most environmental impact.
Mixed results
Jackson Hole, Wyo.-In the late 1990s, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) learned that PFOA was widespread in the blood of almost all Americans, sparking an investigation into the chemical’s environment persistence, bioaccumulation and toxicity.
The EPA found that PFOA caused systemic and developmental toxicity in laboratory animals, and that traces were found in the environment and the blood of almost all Americans. DuPont, the only remaining U.S. manufacturer of PFOA, received the largest civil administrative penalty in EPA history. The company, the EPA said, withheld information from the government on the harmful effects producing PFOA had on its workers. The total payout was $16.25 million.  The EPA then also invited manufacturers to reduce PFOA in emissions and product content by 95 percent by 2010 and eliminate it by 2015.
However, the EPA web site states that due to scientific uncertainties (how PFOA enters the body, for example), the agency has not determined whether PFOA poses an unreasonable risk to the public, and thus it does not currently recommend avoiding PFOA-related products.
In addition to being greatly discouraged by the EPA, PFOAs have been banned by the Kyoto Protocol.  Pure per-fluorocarbon (PFC) ski waxes, however, still deliver ultimate friction reduction for ski racers and teams, dependant on tenths or hundredths of a second for a win.
In ski shops around the world, fluoro-waxes release harmful gases when melted to ski bases. Professional ski techs then breathe the fumes. On the World Cup and other racing circuits such as the Mountain Dew Tour, techs became more diligent about using ventilated wax cabins and respirators after the effects of high intensity, prolonged exposure became obvious in bloody noses and desiccated respiratory passages.
But the potentially harmful properties of these waxes are further proliferated when the wax is shed from the base of the skis into the snowpack, where it is carried down to watersheds in the spring – as a non-biodegradable, toxic molecule.
Norway–based Swix, which along with Toko and Holmenkl, supplies the vast majority of fluorinated waxes on the market, was prompted recently to post a statement regarding wax related health hazards on its web site after extensive coverage on the dangers of fluorocarbons in the Norwegian media.
Swix states that the composition of its pure per-fluorinated waxes have been public since introduction in the late 1980’s, and if the proper precautions are taken, such as ventilated waxing areas and the use of ventilators, the dangers of toxic gases from hot wax can be mitigated. The company makes no mention of toxins left in the snow.
How many skiers does it take?
If one skier calculates about how much wax she actually uses over a season, it won’t amount to much.  However, like most environmental issues, the collective impact is the problem. One individual may tour in Grand Teton National Park only 10 times in a season, but plenty of other backcountry travelers leave little invisible trails of synthetic fluorocarbon toxins. More importantly, according to the National Ski Areas Association, 2007-08 saw 60.1 million skier days at resorts, and it estimates that since 1979, the nation has had at least 50 million skier days each year. That results in more than 1.5 billion pairs of skis shedding wax into the snowpack over 30 years in the United States alone.
Many chemical companies are working on alternatives that will perform equal to consumers’ expectations. What will come out of the chemistry laboratories remains to be seen for general consumption, but in the ski world, alternatives are well underway.
Enter natural wax
Over the last decade in North America, smaller ski wax manufacturers have begun researching alternative chemical compositions for wax with reasonable performance without fluorines.  Like many products in the green revolution, the initial offerings were sub-par, reinforcing the image of environmentally friendly products as expensive gimmicks that didn’t perform.
Early soy-based waxes performed poorly, and made a lasting, unfavorable impression on the market. Lacking durability and often glide, they didn’t take off and small companies hocking soy lines folded. But companies that stayed in the game with traditional petrol- based and/or fluoros, continued working on improving natural wax performance, and their persistence has resulted in much improved products.
All ski waxes can be categorized into three different groups. High, medium and low-flouro-waxes made with PFCs and traditionally made for racers, but also marketed to the masses, control a huge share of the market.
Hydrocarbon petroleum-based waxes, which while made from oil-byproducts, do not contain PFCs and perform well enough for most anyone. And finally, natural ski waxes, which are usually clearly identified.
“Unfortunately, flouro waxes are a necessary evil,” says Scott Sparks of Colorado-based Purl Wax, which does not use PFCs in any waxes and has two lines:  micro-crystalline (petrol by-products) and a vegetable based all-natural line. “Racers need PFC waxes, but your average recreational skier or even professional big mountain skier does not need fluorine.”
Found everywhere good waxes are sold
Aspen Skiing Company in Colorado and Grand Targhee in Wyoming, among other resorts, announced this winter that all resort ski shops will be using and selling PFC-free Purl Wax products. According to Targhee’s Sustainability Director Christina Thomure, the resort tested a few kinds of natural wax before settling on Purl, and is now moving towards using Purl PFC-free ski waxes exclusively.
Jackson Hole Mountain Resort has been doing research to green up their own rental and tuning programs as well. After testing products currently on the market last spring, ski techs were not satisfied, said resort spokeswoman Anna Olson. However, since JHMR’s current wax supplier, Sun Valley Ski Tools, is bringing a PFC-free wax to market soon, the resort is waiting to test it out, Olson said.  In the meantime, JHMR still offers natural waxes for sale, like Bluebird Soy Wax.
Bluebird Wax Company, owned by local Jackson snowboarder Willie McMillon, has  shunned the use of fluorocarbon waxes across its line of products for years. When he first formed the company 13 years ago, McMillon was unaware of the shady side of PFCs in wax. But as the company began to grow and Bluebird needed to outsource production from McMillon’s kitchen to a factory, he began to get suspicious when none of the U.S.-based factories he talked to could get a permit to work with PFCs.
Barring a one-year production run with a rub-on fluoro paste, Bluebird does not use PFC wax, but it was still a wake-up call for McMillon.
“It got me started thinking: What is in this stuff that’s so bad?” he says.  So he continued production of hydrocarbon (also petrol-based) waxes while researching a natural soy wax.
About four or five years ago, Bluebird introduced a soy wax to the market that McMillon felt performed satisfactorily.  “There are a lot of factors that go into testing wax: how you wax, what kind of snow…we have professional snowboarders testing for us worldwide, and when everyone likes it, it goes to market,” he said.
“I ruined like 25 to 30 powder days testing the all-natural wax.” But it is paying off, as the all-natural wax, the company said, was Bluebird’s best selling product last year.
The founder and chemist for Purl Wax, Scott Sparks says it took four years of research to bring a natural product to market as well. He likens the enormous task of making quality wax without toxic synthetic chemicals to brewing a quality beer without barley, hops, malt or wheat.  Good ski wax needs to have three qualities, according to Sparks: speed, durability and user-friendliness.
Originally Purl made fluoro-waxes, but dumped them when the chemical effects became more widely known.  Like Bluebird, Sparks stuck to tried-and-true petrol-based hydrocarbon waxes while reaching a viable natural wax formula, except Sparks didn’t like the way soy waxes performed. Further research led to a hydrocarbon derived from vegetable sources, with the benefit of the same structure of petrol-derived hydrocarbons but lacking petroleum sources.
Waxes of the future, if consumers want them
With big mountain skiers like Seth Morrison and Sage Cattabriga-Alosa riding Purl, natural waxes all over the world for Teton Gravity Research films, one can at least be assured that the days of sub-par green waxes are over.
Purl’s Sparks stands by his natural products, but still markets his regular microcrystalline line vigorously, planning to let consumers make the move for the company.
“When the majority of buyers ask for all-natural wax, I’m ready to produce only natural,” he said.
Excluding Bluebird and Purl, however, natural wax sources are still few, although more companies see the need to offer PFC-free products. Some players include EnviroMountain Wax, made with soy and vegetable glycerides sourced from US farmers and sold in an un-dyed cotton pouch, and One Ball Jay, which sells soy wax alongside fluoro waxes.
“Green products are like health food, says McMillon. “When it first came out, it was nasty, but now it has evolved and the products are much better.  Same with wax.” PJH

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