About a year ago, racers and parents across the country noticed something peculiar about the shelves at their local ski shops. The coveted and pricey bars of fluorocarbon wax that racers had used for that extra bit of speed on race day for decades had become near-impossible to find from coast to coast, as well as with popular online retailers.
Rumors spread that the ingredients found in fluorinated wax were soon to be banned in Europe and North America by their respective environmental agencies and the Norwegian Ski Federation’s decision to restrict the use of fluoro wax for the U16 and younger ages last fall only fueled those speculations.
Just what was going on with the supply of fluoro wax? The answer, as it turns out, is a complicated one.
First introduced to the ski world over three decades ago, fluorinated wax was deemed a miracle product, providing unmatched speed for alpine and cross-country racers around the world. Without getting too technical, when applied properly, fluorocarbon wax essentially creates a moisture and dirt-repelling barrier between your base and the snow, decreasing friction and increasing speed. The effects of fluorinated wax are best seen in snow with a high moisture content as temperatures approach and exceed freezing.
It has been common knowledge in wax rooms for years that prolonged exposure to the fumes from fluorinated wax is harmful, but when used in a well ventilated area along with some form of breathing protection, much like with spray paint and other aerosol products, were generally safe. Fluorocarbon’s other commercial uses like the production of non-stick surfaces and the specialized fluorocarbon firefighting foam used to put out fires at airports and other unique settings have been linked to contaminated water supplies and a host of other health issues and are what got various government environmental and regulatory agencies involved in the first place.
Steven Poulin is the President and CEO of BRAV USA, the American arm of the Norwegian parent company of wax giants Swix and Toko, and has been neck-deep in this issue for nearly two years. He says that after Swix and Toko were subpoenaed by the Environmental Protection Agency over their fluorocarbon-containing waxes, his fluorinated products were voluntarily pulled from the shelves last season in order to become fully compliant with the Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA) in the United States, which has been in place since 1976 and regulates the use of new and existing chemicals, including fluorocarbons.
“I’ve been going through this for 21 months now,” says Poulin. “If a wax company is in compliance with the Toxic Substance Control Act, they can ship fluorinated wax.”
However, that statement, as Poulin explains, is a lot more complicated than it seems. In order for a wax product to be TSCA compliant and approved for import, production, or distribution in the United States, each and every ingredient — not just fluorocarbons — must be verified and cross-checked on a list of substances approved for use in the United States. There are two lists, one of which is private so companies do not have to divulge sensitive proprietary recipes, like specific wax formulas, to competitors. In order to approve products using the private list like Swix and Toko did, the EPA must sign off.
“There’s a lot of due-diligence a company has to do,” Poulin explains. “I’ll give you an example. Our CH8 hydrocarbon wax has no fluoros and is red, meaning we put dye in it to distinguish it as CH8. The dye is 0.001% of the product. That dye that Norway puts in the wax is bought from an Italian supplier and has 19 substances in it; all 19 substances have to be on the TSCA approved list. For 0.001% of the product, I have to check 19 substances and still have 99.999% left to verify in that CH, non-fluoro wax … This is what takes so much time.”
Poulin and his team have painstakingly approved each and every ingredient in Swix and Toko products with the TSCA and their products will be available for sale in the United States. Swix and Toko were served subpoenas not because something was wrong with their wax, but because they have the biggest market share in the industry.
“We have gone through this process and are 100% compliant with TSCA,” he says. “We are shipping fluorocarbons and are back in business.”
Swix and Toko fluorocarbon wax use a short-chain fluorocarbon called C6, which is currently approved by the EPA as safe to use when the appropriate precautions are in place like ventilation and breathing protection. Even though the fluorocarbons used in their wax is compliant, Swix has actually been working on a fluoro-free alternative since 2009, called Future Cera. The project has made progress not only in transitioning to a C6 fluorocarbon, but Poulin says that 70% of their current wax contains no fluorocarbons whatsoever compared to a majority 10 years ago.
“What I want to happen is a fluoro-free environment,” Poulin says. “The safest known wax is a non-fluoro wax. I’ve been awakened by this whole experience and I know waxing is part of the spirit of competitiveness and can be an advantage if you know how to do it well but what is best for the environment is a fluoro-free environment. I am pushing Norway for a fluoro-free environment and a fluoro-free company. We need to lead by example because we are a market leader.”
In fact, Poulin will not be shipping any of the company’s 100% fluorocarbon waxes this year that do include some longer-chain fluorocarbons. Even though these waxes are not deemed dangerous by the EPA, he believes that it is ultimately the most responsible path forward for the industry.
“I’m going to be able to sleep at night knowing we are putting safe product into the environment that can biodegrade like the C6 fluoros we are using,” he says.
Even though current Swix and Toko fluorinated products are approved for sale and use in the United States, a fluoro-free wax industry, whether by innovation through projects like Future Cera, or necessity through an outright EPA ban is a very real possibility in the near future. What would that competition landscape look like?
Sal Monforte is an Alpine Pro Rep with Toko, selling wax to teams and racers in the Lake Tahoe area. Monforte was also a competitive speed skier in the 1980s and 1990s and has been a well-known tuning and waxing authority in the Far West Division for years. According to him, a ski racing world without fluorocarbon wax is nothing to panic about and the hoarding of fluoros should to be the last thing on anyone’s mind.
“You should not care,” he says bluntly. “The wax isn’t skiing, you’re skiing.”
For the vast majority of alpine racers, the benefits of fluorinated wax can be so small that over a typical minute-long race run, factors like properly tuned edges and good technique will do exponentially more good than making sure your skis have the perfect fluoro applied. In fact, our cross-country cousins might actually see the biggest change in competition as their races are much longer and a fast pair of skis over the course of a race that lasts 10 or more minutes can easily be the difference between a podium and a result at the bottom of the rankings.
“I’m curious to see what the cross-country guys are going to do because they really depend on their glide wax and their overlays,” Monforte adds. “It’s going to hurt the cross-country guys for sure and I think it’s obviously going to hurt the downhill and super-G guys a little too. It just means that they are going to have to have their grinds right, the hardness of their bases dialed in, and really hit their wax temps for each race.”
Is the safest, most environmentally friendly situation one where all fluorocarbons are gone from ski wax? Yes, the science is pretty clear on that. Can you still buy fluorinated wax, at least for the time being? Yes. Is a fluoro-free environment a real possibility going forward? Yes. In the grand scheme of your ski racing career, does having the ability to put fluoros on your skis even matter? Not as much as you might think.