Keep Your Eyes on the Slope, and Stop Worrying About “Toxic” Ski Wax

Trevor Butterworth

So how risky is snowboarding compared to the wax on your snowboard? This odd consideration comes by way of Boulder, Colorado’s Daily Camera, which asks “What’s in your ski wax?” and then answers “Slippery coating may be toxic.”

The article claims that ski wax poses a threat to health because the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has declared one of its constituent chemicals a possible carcinogen and that the wax may migrate to the snow, which will then melt, leading to contamination of the water supply.

The Environmental Protection Agency says a derivative of some PFCs called perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, is a possible carcinogen.

How the contaminants get into our blood — and how big a contribution ski wax may make — is difficult to pin down. Fluorinated chemicals are found in all kinds of household products, from stain-resistant carpets and children’s clothes to Gore-Tex, Teflon and even microwave popcorn bags.

Even if the total contribution of toxins from the ski industry is relatively small, fluorinated ski wax may be of special concern because any wax rubbed off on the snow surface will eventually melt directly into the water supply.

First, the EPA does not say PFOA is a possible carcinogen, but a “suggestive” one. And the difference is significant. Approximately ten percent of rodents dosed with 25,000 times the average level of PFOA found in the blood of Americans developed liver tumors. But the EPA’s draft risk assessment concluded that the mode of action which caused these tumors didn’t apply to humans. The EPA’s Scientific Advisory Board reviewed the risk assessment, agreed with the conclusion, but in a divided vote, recommended that the EPA upgrade PFOA to a “possible” carcinogen because there might be other modes of action which could cause such tumors in humans. The SAB didn’t say what these might be – because it couldn’t. The EPA has yet to decide whether to accept this precautionary recommendation.

Even if the EPA accepts the SAB’s recommendation, the idea that wax in snowmelt is going to contaminate the water supply to a degree where it poses a risk to human health is a hypothesis powered by hysteria rather than a sound grasp of science.

Crucially, we have no evidence for PFOA migrating from ski wax. We do know from studies of population subgroups exposed to high levels of PFOA (such as chemical workers) that there is no evidence of health problems. Plus there is evidence suggesting that the levels of PFOA in humans are decreasing, plus DuPont is phasing the chemical out, and levels of environmental emissions have been dramatically reduced worldwide in the past few years). Plus, the EPA notes that,

At the present time, EPA does not believe there is any reason for consumers to stop using any consumer or industrial related products because of concerns about PFOA.”

That level of research is, unfortunately, beyond the Daily Camera, which instead relies on the Environmental Working Group, an activist group that has been campaigning against PFOA for years for its science. Possibly as a consequence, the Camera’s reporter struggles with basic scientific terminology and concepts, viz

PFOAs essentially do not break down in the environment, according to the EPA. Instead, the substance builds up in the bodies of animals and humans over time.

Actually, the EPA describes PFOA as being “persistent in the environment,” which does not mean indestructible. It has a half-life of four years in humans, meaning half of it will be excreted in four years. The very qualities which make it persistent and difficult to break down also make it highly unreactive; almost all the PFOA in humans is bound to the albumin in blood plasma, which means it isn’t metabolically available to do damage.

One recent, albeit small, study (Olsen G.W. et al, Preliminary evidence of a decline in perfluorooctanesulfonate …, Chemosphere 2007) found that PFOA concentrations in the blood plasma of American Red Cross blood donors in St. Paul, Minnesota had declined by 50 percent between 2000 and 2005. Another earlier study showed a similar decline in PFOA levels among the population in Germany.

So building up in humans it ain’t. What is clear is that snowboarding has rather more brute and immediate risks to health. Research on the 14 seasons between 1991/1992 and 2004/2005 found that there were 97 snowboard deaths within the boundaries of U.S. ski resorts. This equates to a fatality rate of 0.53 per million visits. Other research shows that over time, there has been an increase in traumatic head and spinal cord injuries as snowboarders have engaged in more acrobatic moves.

Older research (1996) found accident rates of three to four incidents per 1000 visits, and data from British Columbia in the 1990s found spinal injury rates of 0.04 per 1000 snowboarding days.

So what do we conclude? Don’t eat your ski wax; focus on what’s in front of you, wear a helmet, and try not to crash into a tree.

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One Response to Keep Your Eyes on the Slope, and Stop Worrying About “Toxic” Ski Wax

  1. Hi dude, I love your site. With the abundance of misinformation regarding this subject on the web, it’s great to see some refreshing content. Keep up the great work!

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