In 2019, FIS announced a ban on fluorinated waxes that is set to go into effect prior to the 2020-21 ski season. In response to the popularity of Ski Racing Media’s podcast surrounding the fluoro-wax controversy, we dug a bit deeper to break down the problem, at its root, to help our readers and those impacted by the ban better understand how all this all started, who is involved, how its affecting wax companies, teams, and athletes, and what ski families in North America need to know heading into the 2020-21 season.
To start, what exactly are fluorochemicals, and why are they used in waxes?
Teflon, a commonly known fluorochemical (the first of its kind), was invented for use as a chemical agent that repels oil for non-stick cookware and other metallic surfaces. In addition to repelling oil, its purpose is to repel dirt and other liquid-based substances from surfaces so they stay clean.
In ski racing, fluorochemicals (also referred to simply as fluoros) are infused into waxes and used on the base of the ski for a similar purpose. Since fluoros have a high water and oil repellency, fluoro-based waxes repel snow, dirt, and chemical agents used to treat snow, while simultaneously creating a low-friction connection between snow and the base, therefore making the base of the ski faster. Since fluoro additives became available to wax companies in the 1990s, wax companies have been mixing them into the cheaper hydrocarbon-based waxes to create a more repellent wax, and therefore a faster wax. Fluoro waxes, at high, medium, and low levels, have been highly sought after for this reason.
“The idea behind waxes, in general, are to help move or repel water off your ski to help with glide,” Todd Carroll, North American product manager for Wintersteiger and long-time ski technician, told Jimmy Krupka in ‘The Deal with High-Fluoros’ episode of Ski Racing This Week. “The varying chemical compositions used have different levels of effectiveness, and typically speaking, as you spend more money they become more hydrophobic, they repel water better. So a CH or a hydrocarbon wax is going to do a baseline job of repelling water. As you move through low-fluoro (LF), into high-fluoro (HF), into 100% fluoros, you’re going to increase the water repellency and theoretically increase your glide.”
“In alpine skiing, you need to have conditions that warrant the use of fluoro for it to be effective,” Carroll added. “You’re not necessarily throwing out an anchor, but you’re not going to realize any benefit.”
According to Carroll, disciplines like slalom are not as affected because wax application does not make a huge difference in terms of time. But as you move into giant slalom and downhill, the ski spends more time on its base in between gates. Therefore the use of a fluoro-wax can make a “huge” difference depending on conditions, Carroll says, as long as you’re a World Cup athlete.
What makes fluorochemicals problematic?
Extensive research conducted over the past 10 years has concluded that not only are fluorocarbons nasty for the environment, but they are even nastier for the human body. Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a synthetic chemical byproduct (or impurity) present in fluoro-wax, is believed to have toxic properties that cause extensive harm to the environment and the human body. PFOAs upon heating are released as a harmful gas, making them dangerous to inhale. They have been linked to health issues such as stroke, cancer, bloody noses, and desiccated respiratory passages, and have been detected in the blood of professional ski technicians at high levels, above what is considered safe by monitoring agencies. Environmentally, they pose a risk to watersheds, as they are a non-biodegradable molecule that can transfer from the base of the ski to snowpack upon use.
In response to the lack of regulations created after this information came to light, Dagbladet, a Norwegian newspaper, began an extensive investigation to figure out what exactly were PFOAs and how were they affecting workers, athletes, and teams in the ski industry. In 2019, the newspaper released close to 50 articles that discussed their process and findings.
As a part of their research, journalists obtained eleven popular fluoro waxes from retail stores to evaluate them for PFOA content. Mandates by the EU regulated PFOA-content to 25 nanograms per gram (ng/g, about 25 parts per billion). All but two waxes tested surpassed this mandate, including TOKO Jetstream, which contained about 30368 ng/g of PFOA, about 1215 times the EU mandate. Swix Cera FC7X contained 807 ng/g of PFOA, 32 times the EU mandate. Powders were shown to contain the highest levels of PFOAs.
Other Dagbladet articles reported that higher-than-considered-safe levels of PFOA were found in the blood of workers in the factory of Swix, a major European wax manufacturer (Swix), and most of the professional ski waxers that were monitored. The newspaper also reported a number of serious illnesses and even deaths, where heavy use of PFOA-containing fluoro waxes may have been a factor.
Dr. Thanos Karydas, a Ph.D. chemist, founded DOMINATOR Wax in 1993 to pursue his passion for snowsport while putting his knowledge of the chemical industry to use. As Technical Director, Karydas directs his product entirely through development, from initial formulation in the lab, to testing in the field, and finally to application for competition. He played a key part in the development of fluoro-wax, but also realized the dangers of the wax’s toxic byproduct early on in his career.
“The bad actor in all of this is PFOA. It’s not part of the wax, it’s an impurity that is typically present in small amounts. It doesn’t help with performance, it doesn’t do anything,” said Karydas. “But when you make the fluoro additive that goes into the wax, you also make PFOA as a byproduct. At DOMINATOR, because we make our fluoro, we don’t buy it, we take an extra step to remove PFOA. Our products do not have PFOA. So we have no hesitation in marketing our own fluoro wax because it’s safe to use when used as directed. But I saw the writing on the wall in this byproduct problem, so I said you know we better get ready.”
What happened with the EPA, and why were fluoro-waxes banned?
The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) regulates the introduction of new or already existing chemicals in the United State. The act, regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), gives the organization the authority to obtain any information necessary in order to assess compliance with the law and requires that chemicals put into products sold in the U.S. be released to them.
Brands such as Swix USA and TOKO import their fluoros from Italy and mixed wax from Norway. The ingredients that were being imported for the creation of these fluoro-waxes did not fall on the TSCA list, and therefore their products were investigated and subsequently quarantined. As shown in the Dagbladet research, many of these ingredients proved to contain toxic quantities of PFOA.
Contrary to popular belief, the EPA did not necessarily ban fluoros. As part of the TSCA act, the EPA asks for substances to be registered prior to their use and distribution in the U.S. There is a limitation on PFOA and PFOA precursors, but limitations do not equate to a ban. Swix and TOKO got caught up in the drama because of their imported product, causing the companies to take a financial hit over the past few years as they work to register and approve ingredients that have gone years without being evaluated.
Prior to the EPA investigation, bans have been implemented by organizations in the ski industry that are direct users of fluoro-wax. And in response to the uncertainty surrounding the safety of fluoro-wax, more organizations have begun to follow suit.The Eastern Intercollegiate Ski Association (EISA) banned the use of all fluoro waxes and overlays in 2019-20 for alpine, but have had bans in place for years on the Nordic side of the sport. The Norwegian Ski Federation has had a ban on fluoros for all juniors for the past few seasons. In 2019 FIS announced they would officially ban the use of all fluorinated waxes prior to the 2020-21 season. The European Union (EU) has stricter regulations on fluoro-levels that have gone into place throughout the course of July 2020.
The “ban” by NGBs and other organizations, technically speaking, has nothing to do with the registration of chemicals of the TSCA act. The move made by these entities is something that Karydas believes is linked more to civil responsibility, politics, and marketing, for those organizations that are responsible for the health of their athletes and other participants.
“People confuse it because they coincided. The EPA did not ban fluoros, the EPA banned TOKO and Swix fluoros that had not been registered. And then the FIS made a decision independent of the EPA, potentially as a result of these studies, knowing that PFOA is present in many waxes and could find a way into the bodies of the people (technicians, athletes, coaches, etc.) that keep snowsport alive across the world,” explained Karydas. “I think they did the right thing. If you cannot count on the wax companies as a whole to provide safe fluoros for their users, then FIS has to do it.”
How are FIS, U.S. Ski & Snowboard, and other governing bodies planning to implement the ban?
On June 15, 2020, U.S. Ski & Snowboard, Alpine Canada, and other national governing bodies and national sport organizations in North America (NGB/NSOs) announced the formation of a Fluorocarbon Free Policy Working Group. Group members aim to develop policy in collaboration with industry wax representatives that will eliminate the use of fluorinated ski wax at all sanctioned levels of competition in North America prior to the beginning of the 2020-21 season. According to a press release via U.S. Ski & Snowboard, the working group is committed to creating transparency between wax manufacturers that act as suppliers, so their teams are confident their purchases are fluoro-free. They plan to establish a set of rules and an appeals process for potential violations while working with FIS and the International Biathlon Union (IBU) to coordinate testing methods and setting fluoro thresholds at the World Championship and World Cup level.
Roman Kumpost, chairman of FIS’ Fluoro Working Group said in a Q&A with FIS that each discipline will be handling testing differently. But thus far, it has been decided that a handheld device will be used before the start and the finish of competitions to evaluate equipment bases and detect the potential use of fluoros. For example, when an alpine racer crosses the finish line, their skis are always measured to ensure they meet FIS standards. FIS officials will also use the handheld detector to examine skis prior to the start of the race.
FIS has contracted the company, Kompass, to develop the handheld detector. The plan is to then distribute the device to members of the industry and teams after extensive summer testing, prior to November 2020.
According to Karydas, FIS will be decreasing fluoro thresholds for the next two seasons to help in the transition, by forgiving residual fluoros on the base from the previous 2019-20 season. FIS assumes that by 2022-23, skis used in 2019-20 will either be gone or have received a new grind, and therefore residual fluorocarbons will no longer exist on the skis. By that time, the allowed fluoro level will be zero.
How can the ban be implemented across the sport, not just on the World Cup level?
Not all levels of ski racing are going to have access to the handheld devices that FIS has designed for World Cup competitions. That being said, Karydas does not believe that means there is no way to enforce the fluoro bans across the board. As a chemist, and a wax developer, he says there is a very simple solution that anyone can use on race day, coaches, TDs, parents, etc., to see if a ski has traces of fluorocarbons on the base of the ski, even at the U12 level.
“Right now the prevailing thought is that (enforcement) requires the use of expensive equipment and testing that is only realistic for the highest levels of racing and the rest of the competitions will have to rely on an honor system,” says Karydas. “Many have doubts as to how well the honor system will work and are complaining that the cheaters will have the fastest skis. But the reality is that it is very easy and inexpensive to determine if a ski is loaded with fluoro.”
Fluorochemicals are the only ski wax components that are both hydrophobic and oleophobic, meaning they repel both water and oil. Karydas says that if you dispense a drop of baby oil on the base of a ski and it beads up, it is nearly certain that the base is or has been treated with a fluorochemical, as all other components of wax are only hydrophobic.
“There is nothing else in the world that repels oil like a fluoro,” explained Karydas. “If you get a base that repels oil, it’s a sure-fire way to tell that it has been treated by a fluoro.”
While FIS may be taking a more expensive route to ensure that its athletes skis are in compliance with the ban, Karydas says this is a simple, inexpensive method, that USSA, academies, clubs, and collegiate teams can test skis and enforce the new ban.
“If you have a rule, and you cannot enforce it, it’s a dangerous thing because then you’re basically telling everybody it’s okay to cheat,” says Karydas. “It’s a noble idea, now they have to enforce it. USSA has an opportunity to implement it, it doesn’t take much. There must be a system in place that does not put people who comply with the rule at a disadvantage.”
Is the loss of fluoros the end of fast wax? How does this affect families and retailers?
For John Jacobs, president of New York-based retailer Reliable Racing, he doesn’t foresee the fluoro-ban affecting retailers much. Although fluorinated waxes are more expensive than their hydrocarbon counterparts, he’s not pushing that purchase on family’s that come to him for waxing and tuning advice anyway, due to that expense. Of course, the ban will affect wax companies, like Swix, who had a year’s worth of wax seized and quarantined upon arrival to the United States by the EPA just last year. But as a wax retailer, he has other products available to sell.
“People come in (to our store) and want to talk about waxing and tuning and they reach for HF and I wonder, ‘Come on, what are you doing that for? That extra five hundredths you get out of the start gate is going to be blown by a bad tactile move half way down the course. You’re overreaching here,’” said Jacobs. “I’ve never really been a fan of pushing expensive LF or HF to the general racing community. So really what we sell is a CH, hydrocarbon wax.”
Wax brands such as Wend Waxworks and Karydas’ DOMINATOR Wax already made waxes that are fluoro-free and targeted toward elite racers. Wend utilizes Meadowfoam Snow Wax technology, derived from the seeds of Meadowfoam flowers grown in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. The oil derived from the flower is composed of fatty acids that replace the use of fluoros, and provide similar durability and water repellency on snow. Wend is trusted by World Cup athletes, Tommy Ford and Ryan Cochran-Siegle, as well as retired downhill legend Daron Rahlves.
DOMINATOR’s line of elite ski racing waxes utilize a new technology known as HYDROPEL, a family of polymers developed to replace fluoros by mimicking water repellency and friction reduction without the harmful byproduct. Their Fluoro-Free Competition (FFC) Series have been formulated with antistatic and nanotechnology additives, making them more economical than the ELITE line, while helping reduce the “speed” gap between fluoro-wax and hydrocarbon wax.
Other options exist, the loss of fluoros does not necessarily mean a loss of speed, if athletes and their teams comply with the ban.
“People forget that it’s all about the athlete,” said Karydas. “If we think about the effect on the athlete, is there really one? Is it better for the athlete that the fluoros are banned? If you can’t use fluoros, you’re not quite as fast on wet snow. But if it’s the same for everybody, what difference does it make it? Will the fluoro ban hurt the sport? I really don’t think so. If it’s enforced, it should keep everybody on the same playing field.”
“Why would you want to put the user in harm’s way? What is the benefit? Faster skis?” asked Karydas. “Again, not all fluoros are hazardous, it’s the impurity that is hazardous. A certain segment of the market has PFOA. But, since you have no control over what people are using, there is absolutely no reason to put them in harm’s way. All the other reasons that they’re going to give you, the environment, the cost, and everything, do not compare.”