Ski wax contaminated Park City’s aquifers with ‘forever chemicals.’ It could cost millions to clean up.

Park City’s ban does little to stop fluorowax coming in from Salt Lake City, other areas.

(Illustration by Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune) A study finds soil at ski areas have elevated levels microplastics believed to be left by ski and snowboard wax.

Michelle De Haan is a city water quality and treatment manager, not Sherlock Holmes. Yet when she and her team discovered potentially dangerous chemical compounds in three wells that pump from an aquifer under Park City in 2022, she embarked on a full-scale investigation.

Lucky for De Haan, the culprit left fingerprints of sorts for her to follow. Some 15,000 human-made chemicals are classified as PFAS — short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as forever chemicals for their resilience to breakdown. Yet only about seven types showed up in quantifiable levels in Park City’s water supply with another seven appearing at unquantifiable levels. That eliminated the possibility of the contamination coming from nearby fire stations or the golf course above the aquifer, neither of which used those specific compounds.

“That helped us rule that out, but it also made us scratch our heads,” De Haan said. “What is the source of this contamination?”

Then one day, while deep in the rabbit hole of online PFAS research, De Haan skidded into her answer:

Ski wax.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bobby Monson, an area manager at Switchback Sports ski repair shop in Park City occasionally implements the older method of applying wax to skis, pictured Monday, April 1, 2024. The shop is doing its part in eliminating the use of high fluorocarbon waxes and Park City has banned the use of PFAS ski wax at their resorts for its effect on the environment.

Park City draws tens of thousands of Nordic and alpine skiers every winter. And throughout every run, or every circuit, they scrape off thin layers of the wax on their skis. The chemicals in that wax then sink into the snow melt and soil. Eventually, they can seep into the waterways, where — especially if they contain fluorine — they can cause severe health issues such as cancer, infertility and kidney and thyroid problems. PFAS also pose a potentially thorny and expensive problem for water managers like De Haan, who estimated they could cost millions of dollars to clean up.

After pinpointing ski wax as the culprit, Park City enacted a ban on the sale and use of fluorowax. It’s one of the few places in the world to take that step. Yet the ban can only stretch so far in a resort town that attracts people from around the world.

“We feel pretty confident that the retail community is doing a really good job locally,” De Haan said. “But we’re not able to regulate or have that same conversation with shops outside of Park City proper.”

Studies link PFAS to ski wax

The 2019 release of “Dark Waters” — a dramatization of a lawyer’s claim that DuPont poisoned a West Virginia town’s residents by dumping toxic sludge nearby — prompted Park City to begin proactively testing for PFAS. Since then, two academic studies have highlighted the lasting effects of the use of fluorowaxes on skis and snowboards on the environment.

The first, published in December 2020 in the academic journal Chemosphere, found greatly elevated levels of PFAS in the snow melt from the starting line of a popular cross-country course in Colby, Maine. It was that study, led by Gail Carlson, an assistant professor of environmental studies at Colby College and mother of a Nordic ski racer, that helped De Haan link Park City’s PFAS problems to ski wax. Of the 14 ski wax-related PFAS found in the Colby study, 11 matched the compounds in Park City’s aquifer.

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Skiers zip along a section of White Pine Touring's 20 km cross-country trail system in Park City, Friday, Jan. 15, 2016. The course is located directly above an aquifer where chemical compounds from ski wax have been found.

De Haan noted that popular cross-country ski trails used for recreation and races crisscross the golf course above the aquifer during the winter, and her team found elevated levels of PFAS in the snow melt at the starting area. However, De Haan’s team also found PFAS in snow melt at the area’s alpine playgrounds, including Deer Valley Resort and Park City Mountain.

A more recent study reinforces those findings. In January, a peer-reviewed study that appeared in the journal Environmental Science: Processes & Impacts revealed elevated levels of PFAS connected to ski wax in the soil and snow melt at recreational ski areas.

The soil at the ski resorts had more than twice as many PFAS varieties and they were found at levels 3-4 times higher than in the soils at control sites, according to Viktoria Muller, the study’s lead researcher. Analysis of the snow melt revealed an even larger gap, she said. And while all the samples were taken in Austria from 2021-22, Muller said the findings can likely be extrapolated out to other resorts today, including those as far away as Utah.

“What is new with our study is the actual event for recreational skiing areas,” said Mueller, a postdoctoral researcher at Austria’s University of Graz, “and to see what normal people, not ski racers, put out there.”

Fluorowax: Fast but foul

Fluorowaxes work. There’s no getting around that.

Since their invention in the early 2000s until recently, they have become ubiquitous on the competitive ski racing circuits. They made gliding easier and allowed snowboards and skis, both Nordic and alpine, to go faster.

So when the International Ski Federation [FIS] announced in 2020 that it planned to ban fluorowaxes in all its competitions — including World Cup and Olympic alpine and Nordic races — reactions varied.

“It makes a huge difference,” Richard Rokos, then the University of Colorado head ski coach, told The Associated Press in 2020. “Skis are gliding better, it has less resistance. In reality, it saves you energy and gives you a better performance.”

Rokos said he nonetheless supported the ban. The coach, who retired in 2021, ultimately didn’t have to worry much about it, though. While the European Union banned some fluorowaxes in 2020 and U.S. Ski and Snowboard banned them for its events starting in 2021-22, FIS’s ban only fully took hold this season.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Men compete in the 4x7.5km Relay at the Soldier Hollow Nordic Center in Midway for the first day of competition of the BWW IBU World Cup Biathlon on Friday, March 8, 2024. This is the first year the International Ski Federation has implemented a full ban on fluorowaxes, which contain hazardous "forever chemicals," in all of its races.

FIS’s delay hinged partly on a lag in technology. It hoped to employ a “Fluorine Tracker” to uncover banned waxes on skis and boards, but perfecting the technology proved difficult. The lack of such devices is one reason races only check sporadically for fluorowaxes, similar to the random issuance of drug tests for athletes.

At recreational ski areas, however, fluorowaxes remain fair game. Anyone who wants to go a little faster can… for a price: A bar of fluorowax can cost $100 or more compared to about $25 for a fluoro-free bar.

Muller said the lack of regulations explains why they’re being found at elevated levels at places where races aren’t common.

“I don’t see an issue with beginners,” she said. “But if you’re good at skiing and you take your skis to be serviced, they can wax your skis and use fluorinated ski waxes.”

This seemed to take several Utah resorts contacted by The Tribune by surprise. That includes several in Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons whose runoff is a major source of water for much of the Salt Lake Valley. Most said they believed the Environmental Protection Agency had banned fluorowaxes.

That is not the case, EPA spokesperson Jeffrey Landis said in an email.

Rather, last June the EPA basically nixed the use of new PFAS compounds in commercial products unless they first weathered extensive testing and clearance. Then, in October, the agency solidified a rule that requires any company producing or importing products containing any amount of PFAS to report their “uses, production volumes, byproducts, disposals, exposures, and existing information on environmental or health effects to the EPA.”

So existing, cataloged PFAS can still be used in a variety of products. However, Landis emphasized that the agency has strong reservations about the use of PFAS in ski waxes.

“Ski waxes have the potential to expose ski wax technicians and recreational skiers who apply waxes to the skis to PFAS from handling the waxes and from vapors released when the waxes are melted and applied to skis,” he wrote in an email. “Additionally, PFAS may enter the environment from the use of waxed skis and from the ski wax shavings scraped off during application.”

Several states have already banned PFAS in various products or plan to in the next year, according to the website Safer States. That includes Vermont, the only state to adopt a fluorowax ban, and Minnesota and New York, both of which saw ski wax bans introduced but not passed during their 2023 legislative sessions. Utah has no such ban.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Skiers at Deer Valley on Thursday, April 4, 2024. Elevated levels of PFAS have been found in snow melt at the resort. Most of it, the resort's sustainability manager said, was found where World Cup moguls and aerials competitions take place annually.

Victoria Schlaepfer, the sustainability manager at Deer Valley, said De Haan’s public utilities team found elevated levels of PFAS at that Park City resort during its 2022 investigation. Most of it, Schlaepfer said, was detected in the area where Deer Valley hosts annual moguls and aerials competitions as part of the Freestyle World Cup. She said now that FIS has banned fluorowaxes, she expects a reduction in the concentration of PFAS in snow melt and perhaps a halt to its buildup in the soil.

Still, she acknowledged eliminating PFAS on the mountain is a Sisyphean endeavor. Not only can the chemical compounds be found on the bottom of any visitor’s skis, PFAS have become a staple ingredient in almost every product designed to keep people warm and dry over the past 20 years. As recently as 2022, an environmental watchdog gave failing or near-failing grades to such esteemed outdoor brands as L.L. Bean, Columbia Sportswear and VF Corporation (the maker of North Face) for lacking policies to phase out PFAS.

“It’s easy to commit ourselves at the resort to not having chemicals in our resorts,” Schlaepfer said. “It’s not so easy telling visitors and competitors that they can’t have that wax on their skis.”

How to dispose of a ‘forever chemical’

Even if ski areas and Nordic centers in Park City and elsewhere somehow succeed in eliminating the use of fluorowaxes, that won’t eliminate their problems. The “forever chemicals” are already in the ground and water, and it could take a thousand years or more for them to breakdown.

As Muller, the researcher said, “What is already out there will stay out.”

On Wednesday, the EPA issued its first regulations on PFAS in drinking water. For both PFOA and PFOS, which together make up the PFAS class, the agency set a limit of four parts per trillion —that’s the equivalent of four drops of water in the Rose Bowl. The PFAS in Park City’s groundwater wells measure up to eight parts per trillion, however. While De Haan said Park City primarily gets its drinking water from surface water and only taps the wells on peak usage days, when it blends that water with the surface water, the city will have to remedy the imbalance. All water providers will have no more than three years to comply with the new standards.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A high performance ski wax is labeled with a no fluorocarbon sign at Switchback Sports ski repair shop in Park City, on Monday, April 1, 2024. The shop is doing its part in eliminating the use of high fluorocarbon waxes and Park City has banned the use of PFAS ski wax at their resorts for its effect on the environment.

The city’s best and most economical option, De Haan said, is to blend the contaminated water with water that doesn’t contain PFAS. It is prepared to do that with its new 3Kings water treatment plant. The EPA and the Utah Division of Drinking Water have to approve that measure, however. If they don’t, the next best alternative involves building something akin to a massive Brita filter, in which PFAS compounds would absorb into a carbon block.

De Haan estimated the filter itself would cost between $7 million and $14 million. The carbon block would also have to be incinerated and replaced every year or so, she added, at an additional cost of about $250,000-$550,000 per year.

Incineration is one of the few known ways to breakdown PFAS. De Haan said that’s what the city had to do to dispose of the more than 600 pounds of fluorowaxes it collected last year as part of an ongoing take back program.

Just as it can’t keep fluorowaxes from coming in, though, Park City can’t keep all of the potentially contaminated snow melt from going out. Some will eventually flow through Salt Lake City before ending up in the Great Salt Lake.

Yet the city hasn’t had any issues with PFAS contamination in its surface water, according to Laura Briefer, Salt Lake City’s public utilities director. At least not so far.

“We are concerned about the use of PFAS,” Briefer said, “not only in ski wax but in other items as well that could make it into our drinking water supply.”

The Salt Lake City Department of Public Utilities serves about 365,000 people along the Wasatch Front, including parts of Millcreek, Holladay and Cottonwood Heights. It draws 80% of its drinking water from places where skiing is prevalent. That includes 35% from the Cottonwood Canyons — home to four of the state’s 15 ski resorts. Another 30% comes from Deer Creek Reservoir, which sits adjacent to the Soldier Hollow Nordic Center. And about 15% comes through Parley’s Creek, an area also popular with recreational cross-country skiers.

While Briefer said no PFAS have been detected in any of those sources, they have contaminated two wells that provide supplemental groundwater to residents. One is close to a superfund site and has not been used for a number of years, Briefer said. How these “forever chemicals” got into a well on 4th Avenue, which mostly gathers water from the City Creek Canyon area, though, is a mystery. Briefer said an investigation is underway, but she does not suspect ski wax. Still, she said the discovery of PFAS in a well that draws water from a mostly undisturbed area indicates how prevalent these chemical compounds are.

Briefer did not advocate for a ban on fluorowaxes and other PFAS sources. However, she emphasized that in a dry state like Utah, where water is scarce, she feels it’s best to be proactive about risks to water sources.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bobby Monson, an area manager at Switchback Sports ski repair shop in Park City, uses an infrared waxer to tune skis on Monday, April 1, 2024. The shop is doing its part in eliminating the use of high fluorocarbon waxes and Park City has banned the use of PFAS ski wax at their resorts for its effect on the environment.

“It’s much easier to prevent the contamination through good policy and to take action rather than trying to treat it,” she said. “Because depending on what the contamination is and how intense the contamination is, treatment may not be 100% effective all the time. But we have to do what we have to do to protect the public health.”

Park City’s ban on fluorowaxes has reduced PFAS contamination within the city, De Haan said. Yet, as any good detective knows, locking away one villain often opens the door for another to take its place. And as De Haan pointed out, no one knows yet if the new “environmentally friendly” chemicals being used to replace the fluoro in fluorowax will adversely impact our health or the environment.

“One of the things that is a little bit of a mystery still to us,” she said, “is whether some of these new ‘environmentally friendly’ products are going to have some different PFAS compounds in them, but maybe [ones that are] less mobile in the environment, especially as it relates to snow and water. So we’re kind of keeping our eye out for that because we are finding some compounds that don’t show up in the fluoro suite.”