The same chemicals that help skiers to glide cause harm to human health and the natural environment.
There are few winter activities as idyllic as gliding through a snowy forest on cross-country skis, but this may come at an environmental cost that you're not aware of. The wax that has been used traditionally to coat the bottoms of skis to help them glide smoothly and quickly contains perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS, or 'fluoro' in the ski world.
Avid skiers apply the wax to the bottom of the skis, melt it with an iron, and scrape off the excess, but this process is usually now completed in a well-ventilated room with masks, especially after a 2010 Scandinavian study found that wax technicians at the World Cup level had fluorocarbon levels in their blood that were 45 times higher than non-skiers.
Why are PFAS dangerous?
PFAS are notorious for persisting in the natural environment, hence their nickname 'forever chemicals'. Also found in firefighting foams, non-stick pans, household carpets, and pizza boxes, they can bio-accumulate and move up the food chain. They are known to be harmful to human health, disrupting hormones, compromising the immune system, and increasing risk of cancer. They can also cause a condition called 'lung waterproofing', in which "which the tiny air sacs in the lungs, the alveoli, become dysfunctional and unable to pump oxygen into the blood."
The PFAS have also been found to contaminate water sources near where skiers train. The Associated Press (AP) describes a well at the site where National Guard biathletes, the U.S. Biathlon Association, and the University of Vermont Nordic team train. The well has PFAS levels above the state’s standards for safe drinking water, and "since there are no other potential sources in the vicinity of the biathlon well, the supposition is that the use of high fluorinated waxes by the biathletes has contributed to the PFAS found in the well."
As cross-country ski groups have become aware of these problems, they've begun to take action. AP reports that the International Ski Federation plans to ban fluorinated waxes by the 2020-21 season. Nordic Canada banned high and medium fluorinated waxes in most races this season, and the Norwegian Ski Association banned it in 2018 for all skiers under age 16. The U.S. Ski & Snowboard, which oversees Olympic skiing and snowboarding, also supports the ban: "Races below the World Cup level 'have already taken action to limit and discourage the use of PFAS-containing ski waxes,' said spokesperson Lara Carlton."
What's the solution?
It won't be an easy transition. The non-fluoro versions that currently exist aren't as effective or as fast, which will make elite-level athletes reluctant to use them; and, much like doping, there is a good chance some athletes will be looking for ways around the regulations and testing methods. Right now it's a difficult ban to enforce, with no streamlined testing methods. Outside Online writes that the International Ski Federation "needs to spend about USD$200,000 to develop a mobile X-ray scanner capable of testing skis at a pre-race starting line rather than at a remote lab, which could only deliver results days later."
While wax producers, such as Swix, say they're working to develop fluoro-free formulas, I wouldn't want fear of wax to keep people off the ski trails. PFAS are certainly a problem that needs to be addressed, but I also think some perspective is helpful. Compared to the environmental harm wreaked by winter motorsports such as snowmobiling, which is hugely popular in the region I grew up in and causes tremendous noise and air pollution, not to mention deforestation to cut wide trails through the forest, cross-country skiing seems fairly benign. The fact that you're getting out and enjoying the winter wilderness under your own power, emissions-free and silent, is a worthy endeavor.
Nevertheless, we cross-country skiers shouldn't get too smug about it. We still need to work together to make the sport even greener and safer; after all, a healthier and more stable planet means more years of predictable winter snowfall to pad those beloved trails.