Ski wax industry giving 'forever chemicals' the boot
Eric Straubhar has worked with ski equipment for decades, learning the ins and outs of the skis, boards, poles and waxes. He manages the rental shop at Bogus Basin, a ski resort outside Boise, Idaho, and has coached ski racing there.
On a recent unseasonably warm February day, Straubhar said it had been a few years since he first heard that PFAS was a problem in high-end ski waxes. He said “fluorinated” or PFAS additives had been in some form or another for decades.
“There were a myriad of powders and different things, and then waxes,” he said. “And then obviously up until this point in the last year or so where they've started to see what the environmental impacts of those additives are.”
PFAS are a class of chemicals that are often referred to as “forever chemicals.” They’re man-made, have circled the globe and don’t break down in the environment — or our bodies. They can cause cancer, disease and depressed immune systems.
These chemicals have been used in everything from Teflon to Gore-Tex to dental floss. But the ski wax industry is hoping to leave it behind.
Racing organizations have started banning the use of PFAS waxes in various races. But even though the products have effectively helped skiers and boarders go faster, Straubhar says there hasn’t been much pushback.
“If everyone is using similar waxes and you don't have those fluorinated products out there … the playing field is level," he said. "So I haven't heard any complaints.”
Gail Carlson directs the Buck Lab for Climate and Environment at Colby College in Maine. Her son was a Nordic racer, and she was concerned about the waxes. So she tested the snow after a race back in 2020.
“What we found was that the snow at the start line was extraordinarily contaminated with these fluorochemicals, which are called PFAS,” she said. “And the snow was so contaminated that the testing lab that did our work for us asked me, like, 'What is this sample?'”
This research, and decades of international advocacy, have led to change across the sport and ski wax industry. The International Ski Federation and U.S. Ski & Snowboard and the Canadian Ski Association banned many fluorinated waxes beginning with the 2021-22 season.
However, racing organizations haven’t all banned the chemicals outright. PFAS rules can depend on whether it’s in the U.S., types of PFAS, and who’s running the race.
“Alpine and Snowboard has decided to follow FIS rules…but if it's a USSA-sanctioned race, they cannot use fluorocarbons. Cross-country has gone all in on a fluoro-free environment,” said Steven Poulin, managing director of Brav USA.
Brav owns ski wax leaders SWIX and Toko. As Poulin explained it, while waxing rules are complicated right now, he says the future of wax is PFAS-free. His company no longer even makes waxes with PFAS anymore, thanks to millions of dollars invested in researching alternatives starting in 2009.
“We knew there was different chemistry out there that was just better for the environment,” he said. “So we had an internal project and we've been on this project, which has led us to a fluoro-free company right now.”
The EPA fined SWIX about $375,000 in 2020 after that company imported ski wax products containing PFAS chemicals that violated the Toxic Substances Control Act. A settlement between the EPA and SWIX resulted in a $1 million public education campaign called the Responsible Waxing Project.
“I think we're going to all be able to look back and go, ‘Wow, that's how it's supposed to work. That’s really how it’s supposed to work,’ Poulin said. "When industries can work with the EPA or other governmental entities and find success, and lead to a better place to be for everyone.”
This month, the EPA put out an alert that several other high-performance ski waxes are being sold that violate the TSCA. The agency says it's "concerned that recently identified TSCA violations may be putting skiers and wax applicators at risk for exposure to certain persistent and bioaccumulative chemicals." It also advises wax retailers to "ensure that the products they sell do not contain certain perfluorinated chemicals that are not on the TSCA Inventory or have prohibitions on their use in sporting goods."
But if PFAS waxes are banned outright, how do you police that? There are scanners to detect it in the field, but they don’t work perfectly yet and not everybody has one.
Bans, alone, may be enough though.
Just a year after Carlson published her work on the PFAS in snow following a race, Maine passed a law directing industries to move away from all kinds of unnecessary PFAS uses by 2030, including ski wax. Carlson recently returned to the Nordic track she tested a few years ago, where PFAS waxes are now banned.
“And another research student and I went out and gathered snow again at the start line right after the race and there was hundreds of times less PFAS contamination in the snow. It wasn't zero, but it was, you know, very, very low compared to what we found two years ago,” she said.
Now there’s an effort in Colorado that’s similar to what happened in Maine. Sonya Lunder, a toxics advisor with the Sierra Club, says if the bill they’re working on makes it into law, that could affect a bunch of products.
“Fabric treatments, upholstered furniture, cosmetics, ski wax, products made for kids food packaging and cookware like Teflon pans, for example – and, finally, oil and gas or fracking chemicals,” she said.
Colorado has already passed some PFAS legislation, including banning its use in firefighting foams for tests or training.
Ultimately, those in the ski wax industry say their successes can translate to other outdoor industries, like apparel companies. PFAS coats and outdoor gear are still easy to find on any ski hill.
Mike Schade directs the Mind the Store campaign for advocate group Toxic-Free Future. He’s been behind efforts to push apparel giants to phase out PFAS, too, and said there have been successes. That includes Patagonia’s efforts to phase some of those chemicals out of their products.
However, Schade said more outdoor companies need to step up.
“It's a huge issue in the outdoor apparel industry and the outdoor industry writ large, which is really ironic given the fact that many people that ski and snowboard have a passion for the outdoors and the environment,” he said.
Apparel organizations have often cited the challenges of finding outdoor gear that performs as well as PFAS-laced products do, especially when it comes to keeping people dry and warm. Schade concedes that PFAS-free products might not always work as well, but it’s a trade-off he hopes companies embrace.
Schade has worked with others to research PFAS being shed by coats and gear and has found some concerning versions of the chemical that could be a direct danger to humans.
“Limited information is available on absorption of PFAS through the skin. But there is preliminary information out there that indicates persistent PFAS, such as PFOA, can move through the skin. And that's a concern because in our most recent testing, we actually found this chemical PFOA in rain jackets and other products,” he said.
At the same time, Schade is hopeful, much like Poulin with Brav and Carlson with Colby College. They see the win in ski wax as one that can translate to other industries as states make laws, consumers demand a change, and companies find new ways to create products.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
CORRECTION: This story was updated to reflect the decades of research and advocacy that led to these changes.