When Gail Carlson’s son joined the Central Maine Ski Club to compete in Nordic skiing, one of the first things she told him was to stay out of the club’s wax shed.

An assistant professor of environmental studies and director of the Buck Lab for Climate & Environment at Colby College in Waterville, Carlson knew many competitive ski teams used fluorinated waxes, which contained PFAs, also known as “forever chemicals,” and have caused a variety of environmental and health problems.

So while Carlson’s son accepted he had to wax his skis at home, Carlson began investigating what fluorinated waxes, known as fluoro waxes, were doing locally.

“The fluoro waxes are very high performance. They’re desirable,” Carlson said. “So it was clear that there likely was exposure happening in our community, and I really wanted to look more into it.”

Skiers compete in 2019 during season-opening ski races at Quarry Road Trails in Waterville. Elevated levels of PFAS, or “forever chemicals,” were found in the snow and ground at the trails, a result of ski wax residue that contained the chemicals. The ski industry was one of the first to take steps to ban products containing PFAS, even as the contamination problem continues to worsen in Maine. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel file

In 2020, Carlson tested the snow after Nordic ski races held as part of the Colby Carnival at Quarry Road Trails in Waterville. She found elevated levels of PFAS in the snow and soil. She determined PFAS in ski wax was being left behind in the snow and accumulating in the soil.

In recent years, many racing organizations have banned the use of fluoro waxes, and when Carlson returned to the Colby Carnival this year, she found significantly less PFAS in the snow.

Advertisement

Carlson’s findings are a reflection of the broader ski industry, which has moved away from products containing PFAS. Skiing appears to be among the few sports and industries to have taken steps to restrict the use of PFAS at a time when PFAS contamination looks to be worsening in Maine.

For years, fluoro waxes were considered the top wax option for competitive skiers. But after testing showed chemicals in fluoro waxes leech into the ground and cause health problems among those applying the wax, racing organizations began banning their use, and major retailers have stopped selling products containing them.

“It really was just like, one season there were fluoro waxes, and the next season, there were no fluoro waxes,” said Dave Palese, general manager of Gorham Bike & Ski at The Concourse in Waterville. “It was basically like flipping a switch.”

Ski wax has two purposes: It hardens and protects the bottoms of skis and smooths their passage over the snow, making it easier to glide, according to Palese.

PFAS, or per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, are a group of chemicals that include fluorocarbons used in some ski waxes.

PFAS are man-made chemicals that were created in the 1940s and are used in a variety of consumer products, from outdoor gear to makeup. They are oil and water resistant, making them useful in many products, including ski wax.

Advertisement

The same properties in the chemicals that make them so effective mean they do not break down in the environment or the body, and they have been linked to a number of health issues in people.

A recreational skier using fluoro waxes would be able to tell the better glide that comes with using the wax, Palese said, but it became especially valuable in high-level racing.

“What’s a slight advantage to somebody who doesn’t ski that much is a huge advantage to somebody who is constantly doing events, like at the Olympic level or the World Cup level, where they’re winning and losing by hundredths of a second,” Palese said.

After years of applying fluoro waxes to skis, problems began to emerge in people.

First, there was a health concern for anyone who applied the wax containing PFAS to skis. Those who used them were inhaling PFAS fumes, which was worsened when wax was heated so it would adhere better, a common practice among many skiers.

Then there were the environmental concerns, such as those Carlson revealed when she found PFAS at Quarry Road Trails.

Advertisement

As the evidence grew, the industry took note. A number of racing organizations banned the use of fluoro waxes, including U.S. Ski & Snowboard, the International Ski Federation, which is based in Switzerland, and the New England Nordic Ski Association, or NENSA.

Justin Beckwith, competitive program director at NENSA, said the association banned waxes with high fluoro levels, and then transitioned into fully banning their use.

“I think New England was really proud to take a strong stance early,” he said. “We weren’t alone in that. And there’s just so many reasons why that just made absolute sense to do.”

Officials at several ski areas in Maine, including Sugarloaf in Carrabassett Valley, Saddleback in Rangeley and Lost Valley in Auburn, said while they have not banned fluoro waxes for all skiers, their rental and ski tuning shops have stopped using them, and competitive organizations that host races at their mountains have banned fluoro waxes.

And as skiers stopped using fluoro waxes, many ski wax companies stopped making them. Palese said Gorham Bike & Ski no longer sells fluoro waxes and the shop’s vendors have discontinued them.

“There’s really no demand for them anymore,” Palese said. “There’s other new products that have just replaced them.”

Carlson said the next step is to make sure recreational skiers understand the risks of fluoro waxes, and for ski mountains and trail systems to ban their use entirely.

“Most people would want to do the right thing,” Carlson said. “They don’t know that there are risks associated with fluoro waxes. They don’t know the risk to themselves. They don’t know that there are risks to the environment.”

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.