Ski Waxing for a Greener Tomorrow

by Evelyn French

Salt Lake City, UT – Many recreational skiers don’t understand why they need to use ski wax. They think it’s too expensive or they don’t have the time to learn how to properly apply it. Some think that wax is only for racers and people who want to go fast, but what they don’t know is that wax is for the anyone who wants better control of their skis and extend the life of their skis. Skis can be a five hundred to a thousand-dollar investment, and keeping your skis well waxed is one way to protect that investment. Wax keeps ice crystals from sticking to the base of your skis and also keeps your poyethylene base well hydrated. This chemical wax keeps you in control and provides a better glide.

For those of us who do wax often, we may not realize what sort of chemicals we are putting on the bottom of our skis. Popular wax companies are not about to share their well-kept secret recipe. But the truth is we are melting Teflon right onto our skis.

Teflon, or perfluorocarbons (PFCs), are a series of toxic chemicals that have caused major controversy between DuPont (the company manufacturing it) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for the last twenty years. This chemical is used to keep many different things from sticking. It is on or in seemingly everything, from common household pots and pans to ladies’ mascara, and even ski and snowboard wax.

Teflon breaks down into what is called perflorooctanic acid (PFOA), a nearly indestructible and toxic chemical. The Environmental Working Group, an environmental advocacy group, calls PFOAs “the most persistent synthetic chemical known to man.” It is considered to be persistent because PFOA will not break down for 50,000 years.

When Teflon from your pan begins to wear off, it enters your body via the food you eat. However, when the snow melts, PFOA drains into watersheds, streams, lakes and rivers, harming both the environment and human beings. This chemical has been known to cause cancer in animals and liver disease in humans in greater dosages. Studies have even linked Teflon to decreased weight and head circumference in newborn babies. PFOA has been found in the blood streams of minks, bald eagles, and more than 90% of the American population.

When a ski resort is visited by one million skiers and boarders in one season, and if each of those skiers and boarders use only ¾ of an ounce of wax, 46,875 pounds of this toxic chemical is deposited in the soil and water systems. The United States has almost 60 million ski visits each year, therefore potentially producing almost 2.8 million pounds of PFOA. This amount of PFOA released into the ground water is dangerous and unhealthy.

But the problem is not just with the residue left on the snow. When we wax our skis we are inhaling one of the most toxic chemicals known to humans. When PFCs are heated to 500°F (260°C), the fumes can kill birds. When they are heated to 600°F (315.5°C), fumes can cause what is called polymer fume fever, a flu-like condition that may cause acute lung damage in humans. While typical ski wax irons don’t reach these temperatures, the label on the Toko Low Fluoro wax states, “Do not heat wax above 165°C. Do not inhale vapors.”

So what are the options?

Some types of wax have more toxic chemicals than others. Highly fluorinated waxes such as the Cera Nova made by Swix is made with almost 100% fluorinated chemicals. The CH waxes have the least amount of PFCs and are made with hydrocarbon chemicals which are generally safe for the environment. However, there are some types of wax that are made entirely free of the toxic chemicals.

Soy wax is one such option. The Dakine Home Grown Ski and Snowboard Wax is an all natural wax made completely from soy products. In addition to being better for the environment, this type of soy ski wax supports soybean farmers across the U.S. It breaks down quickly and is in no way harmful to the environment.

The naturally occurring chemicals in the soy wax, however, do not bond to ski bases as well as traditional waxes do. This makes the wax fall apart more easily and after two or three runs you are left with a bare and dry base. This type of wax is ideal for the people who typically take only two or three runs a day, but since it rubs off quickly you will find yourself reapplying the wax more often than you should, costing you a little more money.

To address this bonding issue, companies such as Purl Wax and Enviro Mountain Wax use what Scott Sparks, owner and founder of Purl Wax, calls Bio-ester. Bio-ester is created from all natural and renewable resources like vegetable stock and grains that bond together in all natural hydrocarbon chains. This makes the wax work just as well, if not better than the traditional toxic wax.

I have tested Purl Verde waxes against Swix Low Flouro waxes on typical New Hampshire snow on the slopes of the White Mountains. I’ve taken three different typical temperatures of wax from each of brands and put them on six of the same skis. By using dead weights I was able to calculate the friction of each ski. I found that the same temperature waxes of Swix are more likely to stick to the snow and have more friction than the Purl wax. As a ski racer, I am very particular about which wax is used on race day. I tried the Purl wax in the Southern New Hampshire Alpine Championship and was impressed enough with its performance that I continued to use the environmentally safe wax for the rest of the season.

Not only does the Bio-ester ski wax keep us from inhaling toxic fumes, it is arguably faster than one of the most popular traditional waxes in the world.
By changing to environmentally safe wax we as a community of skiers and boarders can protect ourselves from polymer fume fever and liver diseases. We can help keep animals healthy and save the beautiful mountains upon which we ski. As skiers we love to be outside, ripping up some fresh snow. Why, then, put something on our skis that would destroy the very place we enjoy to spend our free time?

Author Evelyn French is a graduate of the Souhegan High School Alpine Ski Team in New Hampshire and was named to the 2010 Nashua Telegraph High School Skiing All-Stars Team. She placed 10th at the Division II State Championships held last February at Mount Cranmore in North Conway, N.H., while she was a high school senior. Evelyn is currently enrolled as a freshman at the University of New Hampshire.

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