Ski wax might be harmful to your health

Ski racers aren't the only ones who use wax. Here, freeskier Alex Schlopy getting his skis tuned before competition. Bill Hickey

The perfect wax job may help skiers in the halfpipe or on the race course, but it has the potential to cause trouble for professional wax technicians, who inhale fumes as they melt wax onto ski bases. Recent studies of wax techs on the cross-country World Cup circuit found high levels of compounds previously linked to increased risk of health problems, including cardiovascular disease and cancer, in the techs' bloodstreams.

A group of compounds known as perfluorochemicals can be found in fluorinated ski waxes. A Norwegian study that found high levels of these compounds in ski techs also found that the 11 powder waxes and 11 block waxes tested all contained PFCs.

A separate study by Swedish researchers followed eight wax techs working for the U.S. and Swedish national teams, collecting air samples inside their waxing cabins during the 2007-2008 World Cup season. They looked at these results alongside blood samples from the techs taken during the same season.

The team found that there were more of several forms of these compounds in the techs' bodies than in the air they breathed. This suggests the techs' bodies started making their own PFCs, a phenomenon that's only been seen in animals until now, according to Helena Nilsson of Sweden's Örebro University, lead author of the study.

Her research group had been looking at blood samples from a general population, and found one person whose levels for several PFCs were quite high. They learned this person had children who competed in national races -- and parental duties included keeping the kids' skis waxed.

Nilsson, a skier who follows the World Cup, wanted to learn more about people who did this for a living -- and had even greater exposure to wax fumes. The techs she studied spent approximately 30 hours a week from December through March using fluorinated waxes in close quarters.

Wax seems to linger beyond the ski season -- the levels of some PFCs were still rising in the techs' blood a month or more after the races ended.

Compounds in wax may be only one of the hazards for techs. "The dust levels are huge in the air in wax cabins, especially the amount of nanoparticles," Nilsson says. "Most wax cabins at the World Cup have no ventilation." Tiny dust particles can weave their way through the lungs to the bloodstream, kicking off a chain of events that can lead to cardiovascular disease.

While this study focused on the Nordic skiing world, alpine skiers and snowboarders use wax, too. It's possible that techs who melt wax onto the bigger bases of fat powder skis and snowboards could be exposed to more PFCs than Nordic-focused techs.