Nordic skiers compete in a high school meet at Pineland Farms in New Gloucester in early January. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

High school skiing coaches in Maine have joined the fight against “forever chemicals,” paving the way for the ban on controversial ski waxes at Nordic state championships later this month.

Health and environmental concerns certainly played a role in the decision to ban the highly fluorinated waxes, which contain toxic synthetics commonly known as PFAS. But so did another factor: That some teams enjoy a competitive advantage by having greater financial resources to obtain the waxes.

High-fluoro waxes are expensive, but they work exceptionally well at repelling moisture – particularly in warmer temperatures – allowing skis to glide faster and more efficiently over wet snow. Former Yarmouth High coach Bob Morse, who retired in 2018 after nearly 50 years in coaching, said switching from regular paraffin wax to the fluorinated versions is like upgrading from an old jalopy to a race car.

“It’s a significant difference,” Morse said. “If you have those fluoros, it’s like skiing on ball bearings.”

Cost prevents use of these waxes at all but the biggest meets of the year. A two-centimeter block of highly fluorinated wax retails for $100 to $150 and may provide coatings for six pairs of skis for one meet. A standard tin of what is known as pure fluoro powder is good for about eight pairs of skis. Waxes also come in the form of gels and liquids.

“Fluorinated waxes are very expensive, but the dirty secret is that they work,” said John Weston, who is in his 21st year as Nordic coach at Fryeburg Academy. “The more you spend, the more seconds you can shave off. That is a very slippery slope in the hands of an overzealous racer, coach or parent.”

As for any chemical residue left behind in the melting snow, or inadvertently inhaled during the application process, less is known.

However, a mounting body of evidence shows that per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, can build up in blood and tissue and lead to serious health risks, including cancer, liver damage, cardiovascular disease and hormone disruption. The carbon-fluorine bond is hard to break, and may take hundreds or thousands of years to do so.

As a precaution, those applying high-fluoro waxes wear face masks in well-ventilated rooms. One Nordic ski center, the Craftsbury Outdoor Center in Vermont, has banned the use of fluorocarbons in its public wax rooms and on its trails out of concern for “skiers’ health (and) the environment.”

ENFORCEMENT IS TRICKY

At the high school Nordic state championships on Feb. 17-18 at Titcomb Mountain in Farmington, high-fluoro and pure fluoro waxes will be banned from use, by order of the Maine Principals’ Association following a unanimous vote of the state’s Nordic ski coaches.

Dustin Williamson, the head coach at Leavitt High in Turner, serves as a liaison to the MPA ski committee. He said only low-fluoro glide waxes will be allowed at this year’s state meets, and he expects the ban will extend to all fluoros next season.

“It was something that needed to be done, and it’s the right time to do it,” said Williamson, noting similar bans enacted by the New England Nordic Ski Association and the Eastern Intercollegiate Ski Association. Last fall, the International Ski Federation announced a ban on all fluorinated waxes for the 2020-21 season.

Williamson cited three main reasons for the MPA ban.

“One, high-fluoro wax and topcoats are quite expensive, so it’s a cost-saving measure,” he said. “Each team has a varied budget to use so (a ban) levels the playing field. Second, it needed to be done for environmental reasons. Putting the stuff on is very toxic for you to breathe in. And third, it (should be) more about who is on the skis and not what is on the skis.”

Enforcement is trickier. The MPA approach is to have athletes, coaches and parents sign a “Nordic Wax Protocol Contract” agreeing to abide by the restrictions, under penalty of disqualification. Race officials have no way to test ski bottoms for the presence of fluorinated substances.

Many high school teams in Maine buy their wax from Boulder North Sport East, a store in Portland that caters to Nordic racers. Roger Knight, the team and wax manager at BNS East, said there is a wide range in annual wax budgets among high school programs, running from $200 to roughly $1,500 to $2,000.

Dylan Thombs, the first-year head coach at Yarmouth High, said schools with more resources have enjoyed a competitive advantage.

“Historically, schools like Yarmouth and Falmouth could dump a little more money into that,” Thombs said. “I think (the ban) is a great way of leveling the playing field.”

Yarmouth High’s first-year coach, Dylan Thombs, says schools with greater financial resources have enjoyed a competitive advantage in Nordic skiing. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

The Yarmouth girls’ team has won eight of the past nine Class B girls’ Nordic state titles. Falmouth is the defending Nordic Class A boys’ champion and won four straight titles between 2012 and 2016. Falmouth’s girls won three years in a row, from 2013 to 2015.

“Yarmouth is pretty lucky that we have a (well-funded) ski club that we can afford some of the higher-end waxes,” said Sadie Cowles, a senior on the school’s Nordic team. “But I don’t think that the wax should dictate who wins the race. I think it should come down more to performance.”

In years past, most high school ski teams in Maine have purchased at least some high-fluoro waxes for use at Nordic state championships. But some schools were perceived to have had an advantage because they could afford an array of waxes for different ski conditions.

Each wax is designed to work best in specific temperature ranges. Swix, for example, offers high-fluoro glide waxes in six different temperature ranges. The number of brands, products and combinations available for ski wax can be overwhelming.

Those programs that can afford a wider variety of options in their box of waxes obviously have a better chance of addressing whatever conditions arrive on race day, particularly if they have a fleet of test skis to see which wax is faster.

“Even college coaches often rely on professional wax technicians for advice because there are so many options and variations,” said Weston, the Fryeburg Academy coach.

COST WAS INITIAL CONCERN

The high cost is what prompted coaches from the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference about 15 years ago to limit waxing at their championship meets to low-fluoros. Steve DeAngelis, in his 37th year as Nordic coach at Maranacook Community High in Readfield, said science initially was not a factor.

“We originally banned that stuff not because of the dangers, but because we felt really strongly that we didn’t want the big factor to be how much schools had to spend on wax,” said DeAngelis, who also teaches physics.  “We didn’t realize how long-lasting (fluoros) were in the environment and how thousands of skiers would spread that stuff through the woods.”

DeAngelis said KVAC coaches have been pushing for years to extend the ban to the state level and only succeeded this winter after similar prohibitions at the collegiate and international levels helped bring to light environmental and health concerns.

Maranacook has won four of the past five Class B boys’ Nordic state titles, and in 2017, Maranacook’s girls ended Yarmouth’s six-year reign. Like coaches from other KVAC schools, DeAngelis regularly used high-fluoros and pure fluoro topcoats at state meets.

The lack of any verifiable testing procedure was a major factor in why both Morse of Yarmouth and Weston of Fryeburg resisted earlier attempts at a statewide ban. The Western Maine Conference, which includes both Yarmouth and Fryeburg, restricted waxing at its conference meet to low-fluoros two years ago.

Weston said he once had a group of parents who didn’t think his wax plans for a state meet would be enough to match those of other schools. Against his wishes, they paid for a ski shop to wax their kids’ skis, generating a whole ‘haves vs. have-nots’ dynamic within his own team.

Interestingly, the state championship ban has no prohibition concerning kick waxes, which in classical technique allow skiers to push off from the snow without slipping. Weston said he proposed including kick waxes in the statewide ban but was voted down. Fluoros in kick wax or klister work to prevent icing.

Nor will there be a ban at the high school state championships in Alpine skiing, where any advantages of fluorinated waxes are reduced to fractions of seconds because of gravity and length of time on course.

“It’s super expensive and really most effective in warmer conditions with high moisture content,” said Falmouth Alpine coach Tip Kimball. “In cold conditions, the good old cheap carbon wax works fine.”

DEALING WITH TOXIC FUMES

Roger Knight demonstrates how he applies wax to skis at the Boulder Nordic Sport East store in Portland. A face mask and a well-ventilated area is required to apply highly fluorinated ski waxes, which contain toxins. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Fryeburg Academy has a dedicated building for waxing and storage of skis. Weston teaches all his athletes to apply their own non-fluorinated wax but, like many coaches, he handles the more expensive – and toxic – stuff, making sure the area is well ventilated and he is wearing a mask.

William Jordan, a senior at Deering High, takes care of his own skis in the waxing room at Riverside Golf Course set up by the Portland Nordic ski club. He said wax cabins can be cramped, so he makes sure to open doors and windows when applying hot wax or scraping skis.

He said new research about the health risks of fluorinated waxes prompted him and his teammates to wear more protection.

“Right now we’re using just the dust masks,” Jordan said, “but we’re considering investing in higher-quality respirators. We’re trying to take that precaution and be safer.”

Ted Hall, the retired principal of Yarmouth High, is a member of the MPA ski committee and a former science teacher with an undergraduate degree in chemistry from the University of Maine. His sons have competed in Nordic skiing at Colby College.

Hall often hosted Yarmouth team waxing sessions in the basement of the family’s home. Did he worry about fumes or particulates?

“I definitely did,” Hall said. “That’s why we made them wear their masks. And we didn’t use it very often. Some of these things are unbelievably expensive. A tiny little block of topcoat was like $95. So it was a combination of the cost and the health effects as well as environmental effects.”

Knight, the manager at Boulder North Sport East, applies waxes for some schools at his store, and he takes safety seriously. At collegiate meets, he has been known to yell at coaches he sees applying high-fluoro wax with a common dust mask instead of a full face mask.

He also understands the economic inequities among high school skiing programs.

Knight grew up in West Farmington, won the 1991 individual state title while skiing for Mt. Blue High and continued skiing at the University of New Hampshire. His parents were teachers and money was tight, so Knight began working at a ski shop at age 12 to earn enough for his first pair.

“Nordic skiing isn’t a traditionally rich sport to begin with, and I was on the poorer side of it,” he said. “That’s what I see here. As a retailer, obviously (widespread banning) hurts our bottom line, especially with no warning. But as a kid who grew up at Mt. Blue High School, I see a lot of value in it because it should level the playing field.

“There’s very little of the fluorocarbons in most of the waxes we use. A lot of the drive for the banning of this comes from cost. ‘Let’s go to (low-fluoro) and everyone can afford this.'”

The high-fluoro ban works for John Tarling, longtime coach of the Maine Coast Waldorf Nordic team. Over a seven-year stretch ending in 2017, Maine Coast Waldorf won 12 Class C Nordic titles, seven girls and five boys – without using more than low-fluoro compound in their wax. He simply didn’t feel the expensive stuff was necessary.

“I think everybody has finally come to the realization that it’s not worth it,” Tarling said. “We’re better off without it.”

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