Cross country skiers grapple with how to rid their sport of 'forever chemicals'

A group of people ski in Duluth.
Retired Olympic gold medalist Kikkan Randall leads dozens of young Nordic skiers on a workout at the Grand Avenue Nordic Center in western Duluth, Minn., at the base of Spirit Mountain. For decades, PFAS, the group of so-called “forever chemicals,” have been used to make ultra-fast wax that’s prized by cross country skiers.
Dan Kraker | MPR News 2019

Hundreds of the country’s fastest cross country skiers will compete at a national SuperTour race this weekend in Duluth, with a chance to earn points to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team that will compete in Beijing in February.

And it’s a good bet that just about every one of those skiers will coat the bases of their skis in wax that contains per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances — a family of human-made chemicals known as PFAS — that have polluted water supplies around the world, including in Minnesota.

The so-called “forever chemicals” are used in a huge variety of products, from nonstick cookware to fire-suppressing foam, carpet and water-resistant clothing.

For decades they’ve also been used to make ultra-fast, fluorinated ski wax, prized by cross country ski racers.

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"Fluoro” waxes contain a synthetic fluorine-based compound that repels water and dirt away from the base of the ski, which allows for increased glide over the snow.

And they can make an enormous difference in how fast a racer skis, especially in warm, wet conditions.

"In those warmer conditions, using any fluoro wax versus a non-fluoro wax, I mean that can be 10, 15, 20 percent [faster]," said Jeremy Hecker, racing service manager at Pioneer Midwest, a ski shop in the Twin Cities.

Hecker's also a longtime coach and a technical rep for the Rex ski wax company. He says he can feel the difference when he puts a different wax on each ski.

"When I put on a fluoro to a nonfluoro wax, it's almost feeling like sandpaper on one ski. I mean it's slow."

Wax obsession

A man runs a test on a material.
Former College of St. Scholastica ski coach Chad Salmela inspects a fluorinated ski wax inside the college's wax room on Wednesday.
Courtesy photo

Many Nordic skiers obsess over wax. There are a seeming infinite variety of different waxes made for all varieties of snow conditions. It can be hard to get it right. Skiers will tell you there's something almost magical about identifying the perfect wax, that allows them to glide almost effortlessly over the snow. That's what fluoro waxes can provide.

But the same properties that make these chemicals so useful in ski wax also make them bad for the environment, because they don’t break down over time. They’re incredibly durable.

Prolonged exposure to some PFAS has also been linked to negative health outcomes, including kidney and thyroid problems, low birth weight and some cancers.

Scientists have found elevated PFAS levels in the bodies of ski wax technicians, and in water and soil near ski trails from Sweden to Maine.

Sophie Greene, PFAS coordinator at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, said it's hard to quantify the impact of a single race like the event in Duluth. But she said even tiny amounts of these chemicals can have outsized environmental impacts.

Fish, for example, can soak up some of these chemicals like sponges.

“And what we're finding is that even incredibly low levels of a chemical like PFOS in the surface water body can result in high enough levels of that chemical in the fish that we have to advise people to reduce their consumption of fish for safety reasons,” Greene said.

The MPCA does not have the power to ban the chemicals — that would have to come from the state Legislature. Earlier this year the state issued a PFAS blueprint, which recommends eliminating "nonessential" uses of these chemicals.

"And we actually talked about fluorinated ski waxes as a prime example of a nonessential PFAS use, where we could stop using fluorinated ski wax and the world would go on without a major disruption,” said Greene.

Five containers of ski wax sit on a shelf.
Ski wax companies are manufacturing more lines of high-performing ski wax — like these — that do not contain PFAS chemicals.
Courtesy photo

A need for testing

Many cross country skiing associations have either already implemented bans on fluorinated waxes, or plan to do so soon. The European Union has blocked the manufacturing of certain varieties of high-fluoro ski waxes.

"I don't think there's anybody in ski racing right now who's openly and publicly saying we should allow fluorocarbons to continue as they happen,” said Chad Salmela, cross country running coach at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, and the founder of the cross country ski team there.

“I think everybody realizes that there's a health risk, there's an environmental risk."

For Salmela, who’s also an NBC Olympic ski commentator, and many others in the skiing community, the health concerns are more pressing than the environmental issues, which they say are very small and localized compared to other uses of the chemicals.

Salmela says he spent years inhaling the fumes of fluorinated wax he melted into skis.

“I had fluorocarbon basically under my fingernails, in the creases of my skin and probably in my hair follicles,” he said.

Salmela contracted Parkinson’s disease about six years ago. And while he has no idea what caused it, he said all those years waxing weigh heavily in the back of his mind. “What if that’s what's making my right side of my body shake?” he wonders.

Salmela and others say the sport can’t get rid of the chemicals fast enough. The issue is in trying to police a ban, when there are still so many fluorocarbon waxes out there in teams’ and individual skiers’ wax boxes.

The big hurdle for competitive races is that there’s no fast and accurate test available yet to reliably test skis for fluoro waxes. It takes about three weeks to get results from current tests, said Gary Larson, chief of competition for the Duluth SuperTour race.

"And we want to have a test where you can come into the start, have your skis tested, and they tell you ‘yea’ or ‘nay,’ right there. And if you're OK, then you go in and you start and do your race."

Without that test, race organizers say, it's too easy for an athlete to cheat. And there's a lot at stake this winter with the Olympics on the line, as well as placement on other elite national teams.

That's why U.S. Skiing is allowing fluorocarbon waxes at races through the middle of January, including the Duluth race and a race the following weekend in Cable, Wis.

“As much as our U.S. Ski & Snowboard staff and our community wants to be fluoro-free immediately, the Cross Country Sport Committee felt it was imperative to guarantee the sanctity of the Olympic selection process, as well as the selection of all of our Championship development teams,” wrote U.S. Ski & Snowboard Cross Country program director Chris Grover in a letter explaining the decision.

In past years, the Minnesota State High School League has also made an exception for the wax, asking coaches to not use it during regular season meets, but allowing it in section and state meets.

But this year, for the first time, high school skiers will not be allowed to use fluoro waxes at any race.

“We've certainly wrestled with it as coaches,” said Michael Meehlhause, head coach for the Trek North High School Nordic ski team in Bemidji and president of the state high school league’s Nordic ski coaches association.

“We all recognize the long-term impact that these PFAS chemicals have on our environment. I think there's been a good faith effort for coaches and teams in the high school league to eliminate the use of this stuff.”

Meehlhause said it’s also an equity issue, since a single, tiny bar of high-fluoro wax can run over $100.

While racers increasingly are not allowed to use fluoro waxes, recreational skiers are still allowed to use the products on trails around Minnesota.

Gary Larson said he and other skiers plan to push for Duluth to become a "fluoro wax-free city” — something some other regions of the upper Midwest have done — after this weekend’s race is over.

“It’s not something that could be enforced. So it would be more of a policy to just say that these are bad chemicals, and we don't want them in our park system,” he said.