Where Do All the Fluoros Go? The Ins and Outs of Skiing’s PFAs Problem.

Ben TheyerlApril 13, 2023
Colby College Head Coach Tracey Cote and Assistant Brad Ravenelle at work in the wax trailer. (Photo: Colby College Ski Team)

The International Ski Federation (FIS) recently announced that next season will be the first where the use of fluorinated ski waxes—fluoros—will be banned at the World Cup.

Or rather, the FIS are planning on enforcing a ban that initially was announced in 2019, and has been delayed year-to-year ever since.

In its rationale behind the latest delay last August, the FIS responded to reports by the Swedish Newspaper Expressen that the chosen field test for fluoros, the Alpha II, was ineffective in identifying fluoros on ski bases in a quick and enforceable manner. The announcement in March 2023 directly addressed these concerns, saying “the device will provide reliable results to ensure fluor-free competitions.”

The whole saga has brought to light the tricky, often testy, balancing act of levying ethical obligations to the environment and to health while upholding principles of fair competition.

Fluoros, which on a molecular level are composed of extremely hydrophobic long-chain fluorocarbons, have been the standard for high performance ski wax since their introduction in the 1980s. Fluoros not only were used to produce glide waxes but used as an additive to aid glide in kick wax, with typical race wax applications using multiple layers of the substance to produce skis that could cover any snow, especially warm and wet snow, faster than any substance on Earth.

The evolution of ski wax to purer and purer forms of fluorocarbons saw ski waxes become some of the most concentrated per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, PFAs or PFOAs, in the world. When research a decade ago began revealing that PFAs could be linked to immune suppression and act as carcinogens, their wide-spread use in industrial uses—from firefighting foams to waterproofed textiles—came into question.

PFAs’ extreme ability to repel water also made them extremely durable in the environment. Once into an ecosystem, PFAs were transported through the water cycle, eventually ending up in water and food systems. A study last Fall found that an estimated 80% of waterways in America are contaminated with PFAs.

A typical busy waxing scene in Oberhof, Germany (GER) ahead of a IBU World Cup Biathlon event in 2021. (Photo: NordicFocus).

The results pointed back to the risks of using PFAs in consumer products, especially when the concentration of the material was the main selling point on the box (such as in ski waxes). A group of Environmental Science students regularly dealing with the substances outside of the classroom—members of the Colby College Nordic Ski Team in Waterville, Maine—saw a unique opportunity to contribute to the emerging body of research on when, where, and what impact, the use of fluoros in ski racing was having on their environment and their health.

Colby Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies, Gail Carlson, was ready to partner with them. Carlson’s academic expertise focuses on how the environment impacts human health in all its complicated forms. As the mother of a junior racer, her knowledge of skiing made the PFAs issue especially intriguing. Fluoros were a bug in the system: a winter sport that relies on healthy environments, and contributes to the human health of its participants, had a major environmental concern that it would now have to address. Those realizations drove straight to complicated, often difficult questions, about balancing the place of skiing in a world beset by environmental and health concerns. And for every concern about the environment and human health, another sport-driven concern about fairness and competition equity could be raised as a counterpoint.

What resulted from those conversations was a a first-of-its-kind study that sought to measure the impact that using fluoros at a single ski race had on the environment. Carlson, Colby skier Skylar Tupper, and Colby Ski Team Head Coach Tracey Cote cooperated in creating the study that was published in Chemosphere in 2020.  Conducted at the Colby Carnival NCAA race in January 2020, their study put quantifiable evidence behind long-standing conjecture around how effective fluoros were in making skis go fast, how durable the waxes were, and where all that wax was going once it went into the snow.

Amid the rapidly changing policy framework in skiing, Carlson’s research has been ongoing. In a conversation with FasterSkier’s Ben Theyerl, Carlson covered her latest findings, the dynamics of fluoros in an ecosystem, their place in the widespread PFAs crisis, and the policy and ethics questions that skiers face in confronting the PFAs problem.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Ben Theyerl/FasterSkier (FS): What was the impetus of your study with Skylar Tupper in 2020? Is there any follow-up you’ve done to that work?

Colby College Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Gail Carlson. (Photo: Colby College).

Gail Carlson (GC):  It started off with me teaching about PFAs as a family of toxic chemicals in my class. I used the studies that had been done on the Norwegian and Swedish national team wax technicians as an example of the bioaccumulation that these chemicals have in the human body, and a real example of how understanding the link between environmental and human health hazards is still an ongoing process.

I always had Colby skiers in my class, and naturally, they perked up with cross country skiing getting a billing in a science class. The first person to really want to pursue the issue of PFAs and Fluorocarbons with me was a skier, Jeff Tucker, who actually is currently Head Coach at the Quarry Road Ski Club. It’s cool because when I’m out sampling now, he’s still very actively engaged in the issue when I talk about it with him.

It took a few years though to have a student to really put the pieces together, and that was Skylar Tupper. She took the ongoing nature of this issue to heart and really pointed out to me that it wasn’t like PFAs and fluorocarbons were being used off in a far-away land, they were being used every weekend at the races that she was racing during the winter, including at Quarry Road, which is literally down the hill from my office. She simply asked me, “why aren’t we testing this?” And it clicked for me.

We got a small grant from the Buck Lab for Environmental Change, which was to actually get samples tested. My understanding is that is the main issue in governing the use of fluoros in the ski world right now, and I will say that while it’s incredibly easy to get samples, getting them tested is difficult. We had to send our samples down to the State Department of Environmental Protection in Massachusetts. That was the closest lab that could test for PFAs. It’s not super-efficient to study them yet, which has contributed to the issues they cause. We were very limited as a result in that first year that we were doing this study as a result.

What we did have were pretty easy questions to ask, because they hadn’t been studied at all. Where do the fluoros you put on your skis actually end up? How do they abrade into the snow? And how does that snow melting contribute to adding PFAs to water supplies?

Colby had a Carnival race that winter, January 2020. The EISA had put policies in place already governing when they could be used, but it wasn’t a full ban yet (the EISA has since moved to a full ban). I don’t remember the exact details, but Colby Head Coach Tracey Cote worked with me ahead of time to let me know that we needed to test during the Individual Freestyle race, because that’s when pure fluoro top coats were being used.

Carlson’s Research Assistant, and former Colby College skier, Skylar Tupper competing at an EISA Carnival in 2019. (Photo: Gary Solow)

So, props to Skylar, after she raced, she changed out of her race suit and went right back out to take snow samples. We took samples right at the start, sampled at different points on the lapped course, so 100m, 1 k into the course, and 3.9 k (which is a hill on the course), and then collected snow that wasn’t on course to hopefully act as a negative control ((how much fluoro was detected there could be measured against the detection on course). We also sample water in the actual supplies at Quarry Road, which is a shallow groundwater well, and then run-off to Messalonskee Stream, which sits at the bottom of the ridge that Quarry Road is built into.

We found the most concerning stuff in those last two sampling sites, because they showed measurable amounts of PFAs in the sources of water that touch Quarry Road which are part of the municipal water supply. There were enormous quantities of snow contamination pretty much all the way around the course from the start line to the very last hill.

FS: What did the breakdown of the contamination look like?

GC: Most of the sampled PFAs were right at the start line. There was a chemical fingerprint present later in the course, but it was markedly less at 1 k, and even markedly less at 3.9 k.

That, after talking to Tracey Cote, wasn’t really all that surprising. The rules at the time didn’t allow for ironing in pure fluoro top coats, and without it, the fluoros were pretty much immediately abrading onto the snow.

FS: I think to skiers, the figures on just how abrasive the fluoro top coats were are pretty striking. These were a regular part of ski prep for some thirty years, and at various times, they were sold by the ski industry as being not just faster, but more durable, than the hydrocarbon waxes that were cheaper. In your study, they weren’t even making it to 4 k in a race…

GC: It was that finding that kind of changed our scope for the study. I think going in, we expected to be looking for trace amounts in the run-off or water supplies, but as soon as we saw the sample detections from the sites right at the start-line, we had to take a step back. The values were so high that we were like, what? This is insanity. We’re looking at a whole different scale of contamination that we would have thought.

FS: You mention that the chemical fingerprint was unique for the ski wax. What allowed you to determine that?

GC: What we were looking for is just how long the chain of carbons is attached to the fluorine molecule. So most other forms of PFAs you’re looking at 4 molecules of carbon bonded to one molecule of fluorine, what we call C4 fluorocarbons in discussions around this topic. But ski waxes, according to the one study that had been done on them, were majority C6, C8, or sometimes even C10 or C12. And once we got readings from the sample sites on course of what exactly was in the latest and greatest wax, so to speak, we could match the chain signature in the water supplies off the course. We did find that there wasn’t exactly the same signature in the groundwater, which is where the follow-up study is being directed.

FS: There was another study that showed near the end of their time being on the market en masse, the major companies were essentially creating longer and longer chains of fluoros. Does the length of these fluoros, C4, C8, differ as to how they effect the environment?

GC: It should be clear, short-chain fluoros are not really an acceptable alternative. The fluoros still are too hydrophobic to break down in the environment, and they still pose the same negative health risks in humans. The other thing to keep in mind is that was is in the wax when you buy it off the shelf is different than the substance that makes it on your ski through ironing and that’s different than the chemicals that actually abrade into the snow.

FS: Do you have any sense on whether any of the additives to those fluoro waxes—or to non-fluoro alternatives—are being added to make them more resilient to the abrasion factor?

GC: I really don’t know what exactly they would do with Fluoro waxes to make them more durable. There’s always going to be a super high abrasive factor when you’re looking at the mechanical friction involved in making a ski glide, and when that is facilitated by water, a hydrophobic substance is going to easily abrade. And I don’t have a sense of what is now going into the higher performance line of ski waxes now. I don’t know if anyone has a great sense because the ski companies have a vested interest in not disclosing what exactly they’re using if they don’t have to.

FS: Right, once the secret was out regarding what was in the fluoros early on, everyone decided that fluorocarbon wax was the standard. But now, we are back to a shroud where if your company can figure out the best alternative first there is a potential to really gain a lot of the market?

GC: I don’t know the history of the wax industry as well as you, but based on what I’ve seen in terms of what the bigger companies are doing now, branding by “performance-grade” or “speed” rather than how much fluorocarbon is in the wax, I would think that dynamic is at play, especially if you can avoid disclosure by putting stuff into the wax that isn’t controlled under TSCA (the Toxic Substance Control Act), which is a lot. That was what kind of kicked all of this off right, TSCA was amended in 2016, and it was disclosed that the stuff being imported as ski wax contained PFOAs and PFAs that we were learning were pretty nasty chemicals that didn’t breakdown in the environment.

FS: And wax companies would like to avoid that kind of major shift again…

GC: Exactly.

FS: The whole ski world has mobilized around those discoveries made around 2016-17. US Ski and Snowboard banned fluoros at races this past season. Some circuits—like the one I coach in in Colorado—are under wax protocols that dictate exactly which waxes we can use, and the FIS has again announced they’re going forward with the ban they originally announced in 2019.

The reasoning given for the delays is there’s no field test that is ready and reliable. Does that track with your experience, having actually tested for fluoros in the field?

GC: If they’re looking for like a gun that you can hold up to the bottom of a ski, zap it, and get a reading, that would be extremely difficult, especially on a hard surface like the base of a ski. I’m not surprised that it has been more difficult than we think to get a reliable field test. The simplest version would be a little handheld spectrophotometer, which could just give you a spike in Flourine. That would be hard to do, but if you’re asking to get readings on the specific make-up of chemicals, then you run into even more issues.

Skis lined up for Fluoro testing at an IBU Biathlon World Cup test event in Ostersund, Sweden last month. (Photo: NordicFocus)

FS: There’s a spectrometer, the Alpha II, introduced in 2022, but there were reports pretty immediately that it wasn’t reliable enough to just identify fluoros…

GC: That would be along the right path. I would hazard a guess that the problem comes when you are having to use such a hard surface to test in the field. Most Spectrometers you end up breaking substances down-putting them in an aqueous solution. You couldn’t do that in a field test on a ski surface, and I would guess it’d be hard to get something that immediately distinguishes the fluoro chemicals from all the other stuff that is in a ski base.

The answer to the hard surface problem is to take samples of the snow the ski goes over, rather than the ski itself. But that would obviously be a retrospective test, and you know, we’re doing that now and the turnaround time for it in the lab is weeks.

If you take a step back, it is a good example of where science intersects with policy. We can do a fluoro test right now, but does that test fit the parameters to where it’s useful for the purpose it’s needed for? Is it ok to do retroactive bans for breaking the rules, or is that not incentivizing following them enough…

FS: It strikes me as reminiscent of the dynamics at play when you start talking doping in sports, and those debates have been going on for years and years…

GC: There is definitely a similar dynamic at play. Does the USSS ban cover collegiate and high school races and all those circuits?

FS: Pretty comprehensively, but it is questionable whether that eliminates the market. The other issue I’m sure you’re familiar with is that there is no firm guidance from the EPA yet on how to actually dispose of fluoro waxes, so while buy-back programs have been attempted, the people working on them have had a hard time seeing how they scale.

GC: You bring up a really interesting point with that issue. The disposal programs are really, truly, all over the map when it comes to PFAs, both in the ski world, and in more industrial uses like firefighting foams. Like at Quarry Road, we did a wax take-back program in partnership with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, and they ended up just landfilling that wax, which we’ve now shown doesn’t contain the problem.

FS: The interim guidance released in 2020 mentions incineration…

GC: The problem with that is that fluorine and fluorocarbons are a halogenated chemical. So if you incinerate, the fluorine is going to go somewhere, it’s not just going to disappear. And, they’re reactive too, they’ll react with anything organic, so what incineration would end up doing is creating a whole new set of chemicals which you either have to contain, or it’s going to release these PFAs in gas form, which, again, with what we know about the health risks, could be worse.

There is emerging research that shows that it may be possible to do a safe, chemical conversion on some classes of PFAs, so there is hope on this, but from a consumer safety standpoint, this is very similar to the problems we experienced with lead back in the day. The science quickly moved to show that what we thought was an innocuous material used for a lot of things is just simply not, it poses a big risk to the environment and to human health. A lot the reasons that make them unhealthy for humans are the same reasons that make them hard to dispose of, so I’m not surprised the EPA has been very cautious.

FS: Do you think there are additional measures whereby the ski world could get rid of their stockpiles, or to store them for when guidance does come from the EPA?

GC: I’m of the opinion that the simplest way is the best way here; hold onto them. Trust that when disposal guidelines do come out, there’ll be a better process to organize, collect, and dispose of these chemicals. You want to make sure that the PFAs that you’re giving over are being really disposed of or destroyed in a safe manner.

In the meantime, I don’t understand the incentive to use this as a reset for the ski community. If everyone is on the same type of wax, then what is the competitive advantage.

FS: You bring up an interesting ethical set of concerns for the ski community. The Fluoro issue brings up a lot of existential questions about why people in the sport do the sport. Personal health, or the idea that skiing gives you an appreciation of our environment, are central to many people’s relationship with the sport. In the competitive world, though, concerns towards health and the environment often take a back seat to competitive concerns, and that dynamic really has been the impetus for the story of PFAs and skiing. I’m curious how you—a researcher focused on environmental health—communicate the prescience of your findings?

GC: It’s a great question that colors all of our research on this issue of PFAs.

There was an interesting moment for me in January 2022, there was another Colby Carnival, and so myself, my son, and a research assistant, Megan Anderson, used it as an opportunity to do a follow-up. When I talked to Tracey Cote beforehand, I was surprised to find out that there had been pretty swift action on the EISA. She was clear that there were no fluoro waxes allowed, and that collegiate racing was all under a ban. I was surprised by the swiftness of the action there, but Tracey had also said that our research at Quarry Road had been enough to persuade the circuit that erring on the side of acting in this case was a good idea.

FS: That Colby Carnival was January 14th-15th, 2022. So it was the first race of EISA season, but in the middle of the ski calendar. Notably, it was right after the Cross-Country National Championships in Soldier Hollow, Utah, which still allowed Fluoros under US Ski and Snowboard policy at the time. In your follow-up study, did you find that had any bearing on the findings?

GC: In fact, it was the finding of that follow-up study. We still found the same pattern of abrasion, with the same chemical footprint, around the course at Quarry Road. Was it less than in 2020? Yes, it was substantially less, like one-hundred times less, but the footprint was remarkably identical. The footprint really reiterated that it couldn’t be recreational skiers that we were measuring, we were measuring residual fluoros from competitive skiers.

FS: How do you take that result then? It was a lot less, but still there…

GC: Yeah, there’s two parts. 1) The significantly reduced amount of fluoro in the snow is a powerful sign that banning fluoro products does work. 2) The significant amount we found still on course and in the water supply speaks to why a patchwork policy towards fluoros and PFAs doesn’t really work. PFAs are a problem because they are incredibly persistent, so our policy towards them has to match that persistence.

FS: What does that level of PFAs in the snow and environment look like in real-terms?

GC: So I think it’s still a problem, even at reduced levels in the environment, because if you think about it, the sources are all acute, and then the material is dispersed into the environment. I remember when my son first started waxing with the Quarry Road Ski Club, they would all be in a closed wax cabin burning these waxes into the ski. That represents an insane concentration of the risks associated with PFAs right at the source of how they’re getting into the environment. Then the risk disperses when it gets out into the air and deposits in the snow, but when it seeps into the water supplies, it again accumulates on the other end.

In short, skiers are exposed to concentrations of risky material when that material is concentrated. We’re in a uniquely vulnerable position to these chemicals.

FS: When you talk about the process of these PFAs going from being applied onto the ski, and then transferred to the environment, what does that look like? Do you have a sense of how great a concentration a single race or event creates, and how large is the area of diffusion for these waxes?

GC: I don’t think you can extrapolate the amount of material from our one study, per se, but conceptually we can think about it this way; the defining characteristic of PFAs in the environment is that they are extraordinarily hydrophobic. They do not dissolve. That makes them extremely mobile, because wherever water goes, they get carried with it.

Let’s take our environment in Maine as an example. The PFAs in Quarry Road get carried in the stream here, and that makes its way ten miles downstream to where it cuts through a farmer’s land. If that farmer is using the water from the stream as a drinking source for livestock, or as an irrigation source for crops, those PFAs are making their way into whatever that farmer is producing.

Maine has a unique problem here. The state started testing for PFAs contamination and found that one of the biggest sources was biosolid fertilizer – essentially human and animal waste that was being sold to farmers – and that is creating a crisis in our agricultural industry, which is a huge part of our economy. And the problem there is we’re one of only two states testing for it (Michigan has also began a biosolids testing program), so there’s no reason to believe that this won’t be a problem across the United States.

I’d underscore that because the half-lives of these PFAs is in the order of decades, and they have multiple ways of moving through the water and food systems that are part of our everyday lives, they potentially pose an environmental risk that is on the order of something that we haven’t seen before. DDT, PCBs, their half lives were shorter, and they weren’t able to make their way completely through our food and water cycles. PFAs can.

Quarry Road Ski Area in Waterville, Maine, which sports a snowmaking loop that is increasingly relied on during lean New England snow years. (Photo: Friends of Quarry Road)

FS: The regulatory framework that is being developed for PFAs looks similar in scale to those previous sets of chemicals that we now look back to in the history of Environmental Policy as a watershed. DDT was the subject of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. The Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA) was a result of concerns around PCBs. What do you think that will look like?

GC: I still think it’s impossible to say, we’ve only really started to understand the scope of the problem in last couple of years. The recent study finding it’s in something like 80% of water supplies in the United States, like that changes the whole scope of action. State-by-state US action won’t be super effective, this has to be federally regulated by the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). The European Union (EU) has been looking at a total ban, and even there, the debate over how capricious the definition of what constitutes this class of chemicals is forcing delays and opposition.

What I think you can say for sure is that regulation is coming, and so, it would be smart for the ski industry to get ahead of it. It’s still, in the grand scheme of things, a very small contributor to the problem. When we’re eating food that contains PFAs in levels that are similar to what we found leached into the water supplies, even a total move away isn’t going to solve the health risks for skiers, but it will remove the additional risk to PFAs exposure that has been part and parcel to being active in the sport for many years now.

FS: We’ve touched on the ethical concerns posed to the ski community, but I was wondering what you see as being special concerns to our community that you may not see elsewhere with PFAs?

GC: The hopeful thing is I think by nature of having to think about the impacts of climate change on the sport, and other environmental concerns, skiers are probably pretty well equipped to understand the far-reaching impacts that doing something directly damaging to the environment like using fluoros in your wax has. There is a few though I can think of…

One is that by the nature of where snowfall accumulates, skiers have an outsized impact on the water supply putting PFAs into the snow. In Waterville, we’re maybe in the middle of our watershed, but especially in the West…

FS: If you don’t mind, I’ll use myself as an example here. I’m in Crested Butte, Colorado, where the snowfall at 9,000 feet on the western slope has a direct impact on the water supplies as far away as California…

GC: Perfect example.

FS: There’s also the different communities from your own that really covers.

GC: Yes, that’s part of what makes this an Environmental Justice issue. Think about the wealth concentrated in the ski community, and if it’s having a direct negative impact on agricultural communities, that is only worsening persistent problems of inequality.

It all comes back to the fundamental truth about the environment we are a part of. Even when we are doing the activity that takes us away from the concerns that we have to think about way off in some other place, we still have an impact. I think there is a lot to consider there as skiing looks towards the future.

Colby College skier Rose Clayton cleans ski base at Senior Nationals in Soldier Hollow, Utah in January 2022. (Photo: Colby College Ski Team)

Ben Theyerl

Ben Theyerl was born into a family now three-generations into nordic ski racing in the US. He grew up skiing for Chippewa Valley Nordic in his native Eau Claire, Wisconsin, before spending four years racing for Colby College in Maine. He currently mixes writing and skiing while based out of Crested Butte, CO, where he coaches the best group of high schoolers one could hope to find.

Loading Facebook Comments ...

Leave a Reply