Wax may expose skiers to harmful ‘forever chemicals’

The intensity with which skiers and snowboarders apply wax, coupled with long-term and frequent use of wax, places these athletes at a heightened risk of exposure to PFAS, research shows. (Credit: Getty Images)

For skiers and snowboarders, exposure to harmful chemicals in wax and cleaning solvents might be a bigger concern than previously known.

If you’re an experienced skier or snowboarder, you know that feeling of gliding down a slope after freshly waxing the base of your gear. That wax layer protects your equipment and gives you extra speed, no matter your ski or snowboard style or level of expertise.

Unfortunately, many commonly used waxes contain per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and other chemicals that are hazardous to human health and the environment.

Harmful solvents are often used to clean wax off of equipment, too, which are then released into the air, water, and snow near ski and snowboard areas, posing health risks to humans and wildlife. The famed ski town of Park City, Utah, home to the largest ski resort in the United States, recently banned fluorinated wax after PFAS were found in groundwater wells.

While previous research raised the issue of pro technicians being exposed to dangerous chemicals, the new study, published in the journal Environmental Research, finds that most skiers and snowboarders in the US apply waxes that contain PFAS to their equipment, often multiple times each year and over many years—and protective equipment is not widely used when doing so.

This may mean a significant risk of exposure to PFAS and other environmental contaminants, the researchers found.

Known as “forever chemicals” because they are difficult to break down, PFAS are linked to a number of health conditions, including increased cholesterol levels, cancer, liver damage, thyroid disease, decreased vaccine response, and developmental and reproductive complications.

To limit exposure, the authors of the study suggest educational initiatives encouraging winter sports participants to adopt protective measures.

“Educational awareness about the health risks of PFAS in our bodies and in our environment would help reduce use and, thus, help reduce exposure,” says senior author Birgit Claus Henn, an associate professor of environmental health at Boston University School of Public Health. “I also think this could help motivate participants of the sports to continue to seek safety measures and to exert pressure on the waxing industry for hopefully safer alternatives.”

For the study, Claus Henn and colleagues surveyed 569 members of the US ski and snowboard community about their wax use or exposure. The group included people who engaged directly and indirectly in recreational or professional cross-country and downhill skiing or snowboarding—including coaches, technicians, current and former athletes, current and former industry professionals, and family members or friends of current or former participants.

About 92% of people surveyed reported that they used some form of wax, 67% used PFAS-containing waxes, and 62% also used solvents for ski base cleaning. Wax was most commonly used among cross-country skiers, followed by downhill skiers and then snowboarders.

Cross-country skiers used personal protective equipment and worked in ventilated spaces more than the other athletes but, overall, the majority of athletes did not adopt these measures. The intensity with which skiers and snowboarders apply wax, coupled with long-term and frequent use of wax, places these athletes at a heightened risk of exposure to PFAS.

These chemicals are already present in drinking water and numerous consumer products, like cookware and some clothing, so any additional exposures are concerning, the researchers say.

The ski and snowboarding industries are slowly adopting safety measures to reduce this exposure, such as restricting fluorinated waxes or developing non-fluorinated alternatives. But educational awareness and outreach are still critical, says Claus Henn.

“I am encouraged by the industry’s plans to shift away from fluorinated waxes and by the banning of fluorinated ski waxes in competition—however, this doesn’t mean exposure to PFAS from ski wax will cease right away,” she says.

“Even following this shift or ban, it is likely that individuals will use up the wax that remains on our shelves, and residual contamination of dusts, for example, in environments where waxing was conducted is likely.”

Claus Henn plans to work with Boston University alum Kate Crawford, a coauthor of the latest paper and a Middlebury College assistant professor of environmental studies, on a project that aims to measure PFAS in dust wipes from waxing spaces and compare the PFAS levels before and after the ban of fluorinated waxes from collegiate competition.

“We’ll need to keep an eye on chemical substitution,” says Claus Henn. “What is the composition of newer alternatives? Also, how do we properly dispose of the waxes containing these often highly persistent chemicals?”

Source: Boston University