Thursday, January 31, 2002 - Waxing
Waxing Safety

By: Matthew T. Pauli

The advent of flouro additives in glide and kick waxes has spawned the need to adequately address the safety and health factors associated with their use. This article hopes to address some of those questions and concerns. This excerpt will not make you a safety and health expert or provide you with secrets on faster skis. This is written by a person who takes an extreme interest in occupational safety and health and still uses Fall-Line wax products that seem to surface from the nether-regions of the wax trunk.

I enjoy cross country skiing, as I have since the elementary school jamborees. By profession, I am an industrial hygienist. What? Some people assume I restock the paper towels in the restroom or promote good oral hygiene in the workplace. To put it into perspective, industrial hygiene is the art and science of anticipating, recognizing, evaluating and controlling workplace stressors (chemical, physical, and microbiological) in the work environment that negatively impact worker health, the health of family members, and the community environment as a whole. The profession has been recognized since the turn of the century coinciding with the industrial revolution. I have a graduate degree in industrial hygiene and find addressing and correcting workplace hazards very rewarding. In addition, my thesis work focused on respirator fit and fit factor calculations under varying ambient temperatures.

I have worked as an industrial hygiene consultant in the private and public sectors including the State of Alaska, Occupational Safety and Health (state OSHA). I have visited a variety of Alaskan workplaces with a variety of workplace hazards including fish processors (noise, cold, ergonomics, ammonia refrigeration), office spaces (ergonomics, indoor air quality), welding shops (welding fumes, ultra-violet radiation, noise), and plastics extrusion molding (chemical inhalation and dermal exposures). I have observed quite a bit, took measurements, recommended controls, withdrew myself from hazardous situations, and referred egregious safety and health violations to enforcement.

So, what is the concern with flouro waxes? That would depend on the route of exposure. It is virtually impossible to absorb through the skin. It doesn't taste to good but would probably give you an upset stomach if you decided to ingest it. The main route of exposure would be inhalation; when the wax is applied (heated) with a heating appliance. As my toxicologist friends say, "Dose makes the poison!"

Obtaining a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for the various wax products was difficult. The MSDS I did receive from Swix was half-English, half-Norwegian. When distributors were contacted (well-known ski shops) they were equally perplexed on my request.

Individuals equate odor with exposure. Quite frankly, fluorine has no odor. The odor generated by the melting of ski waxes are more than likely the major hydrocarbon constituents. Now, if the wax was heated beyond the point of decomposition, then it is likely that exposure is already occurring and the applicator should be concerned with creating an unhealthy environment. The Swix MSDS previously referred to indicated not to heat ski wax beyond 360 degrees Celsius. This appears to be the temperature in which the fluorine additives decompose. Modern waxing irons would be hard pressed to reach this temperature. Heat guns and torches could easily surpass this temperature.

Reading the literature of one wax manufacturer, a statement indicated that the government requires the use of respiratory protection when employees are over-exposed to chemical contaminants. Nothing could be further from the truth. Respiratory protection is the choice of last resort. Several steps should be taken prior to the use of respirators. These include:

  1. Engineering controls;
  2. Administrative controls; and,
  3. Personal protective equipment (PPE).

Each of these approaches are discussed below.

Engineering controls include the use of ventilation and the substitution of less harmful chemicals. Ventilation can either be termed as general or exhaust ventilation. General ventilation, or lack thereof, is the norm in most waxrooms. The axiom, "dilution is the solution" is never heeded. Let's face it, if a skier was ever in a situation where they could barely see the opposite side of a waxroom, then that person is more than likely in an unhealthy atmosphere. The other type of ventilation is exhaust ventilation. Bathroom fans and kitchen range hoods meet these criteria. Local exhaust ventilation, where the contaminant is removed from the work area at the point where it was generated, is typical of welding operations, lab benchtops, wood working machinery, grinding operations, and automobile repair shops for exhaust gas capture. Local exhaust ventilation is the preferred method. As long as adequate capture and transport velocities exist, the contaminant will be removed.

Substitution is another key engineering control. Substitution includes using an inherently less harmful product in place of the more hazardous product. In the case of ski waxing, using low flouro or straight hydrocarbon waxes in place of high flouro or straight flouro products. It is reasonable to assume that flouro products are not the fastest waxes across the snow condition and temperature ranges.

Another example of substitution is the use of wax remover. Some wax remover cleaning solvents are a witch's brew of aromatic hydrocarbons (toluene, xylene, benzene), petroleum distillates (Stoddard solvents and mineral spirits), and halogenated hydrocarbons (methylene chloride, methyl chloroform). Some of these are known occupational carcinogens. Newer solvents are citrus-based with minor petroleum distillate properties. The pleasing odor helps. While still somewhat volatile, they are less so than the cleaners of old.

Work practice controls are very important. For ski waxing, these include iron temperature setting, buffing versus ironing flouro additives, and body position of the waxing technician. Regardless of what is said, skiers want to get that wax on, and now! This inevitably leads to smoking the wax from high iron temperatures. What we don't want here is an iron so hot that the decomposition temperature of the nasty stuff is met and the nasty stuff is released. Investment in a modern waxing iron is imperative. I still have a collection of old flat irons gathered from thrift stores. These have been relegated to the bottom of the wax trunk.

The decomposition temperature, from what I have read, is higher than the optimum application temperature. Buffing flouros is a work practice that eliminates the excessive heat and exposure potential. It saves your ski bases and eliminates the exposure. Finally, body position is crucial. Leaning over the ski as the ironing process takes places will lead to exposure. Proper hood design is imperative. The canopy design places the hood above the waxing operation. Waxing by-products are drawn, considering capture velocity is adequate, vertically. If the wax technician is postioned over the process, excessive exposure occurs.

PPE is the final alternative when limiting exposure to a harmful substance and should only be considered when engineering and work practice controls cannot be feasibly implemented. Unfortunately, it is the protection method that is relied upon the most. PPE includes respirators, aprons, gloves, eye protection; those articles of equipment that are placed between the individual and the hazard. Some occupations demand PPE use including firefighters, health care professionals, painters, and asbestos abatement workers.

All respirators leak. Some less than others, but this must be stressed. Selection of respiratory protection is not by happenstance. Facepieces are all different, faces are all different. Do not purchase a respirator because it is the "most popular on the World Cup Circuit!" This was found in a catalog of a reputable ski shop in Utah. That claim no longer exists in the catalog but they continue to sell respirators. In addition, different respirators exist including half-face, full-face, powered air-purifying, supplied air; the list goes on. All respirator facepieces must be fit tested. The respirator must be donned (put on) and doffed (taken off) properly. A clean shaven face is a must! If you have beard, you are only kidding yourself that you are properly protected.

Cartridge selection is important. I have seen recommendations anywhere from organic vapor cartridges to combination cartridges; attempting protection for every conceivable contaminant. A short primer in aerosol science is necessary here. Ski wax is heated. The solid is transformed into a liquid and quickly cools to a solid. The wax has sublimated, similar to a welding operation. The liquid in turn has evaporated slightly to become a vapor. This vapor quickly condenses to a fume particle that makes up the constituent of the smoke generated by the melting process. A vapor is not a fume but they are both aerosols. Next time you here someone say, "I really like the smell of gas fumes when I am filling my car's gas tank!" Correct them and say that they enjoy the "vapor."

A wax fume particle is one (1) micron ((m)(Dahlqvist, et al, 1992), one-millionth of a meter, one-hundredth the width of a human hair which becomes airborne. This inhalable particle makes up a portion of the respirable fraction with a 97 % chance of being transported to the deep lung (ACGIH, 2001).

What would be the reaction if this happened? As an inhalable particle, irritation of the entire respiratory tract including the naso-pharyngeal (nose-mouth), thoracic (lung-airways), and deep lung (gas-exchange) regions could occur. The irritation would stem from the hydrocarbon constituents and, if heated to decomposition, the decomposed fluorine. Flourine reacts with water and becomes hydrofluoric acid. The respiratory system is indeed a moist environment. While exposures from ski waxing would be acute and more than likely not lead to degradation of tissue, the resultant irritation is a combination of the moist environment of the respiratory system and the contaminant.

So, what type of cartridge? An MSDS from SWIX indicated a "P3." Since the MSDS was written for European application, this recommendation is based on the European standards. The U.S. equivalent would be based on a cartridge certified by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). NIOSH is the only agency that certifies respiratory protection for use in this country. If you just happened to pick up a respirator in Europe and it is not on the Certified Equipment List compiled by NIOSH, the respirator is not certified for use in this country.

The equivalent cartridge to the P3 in this country would be a P100 or "High-Efficiency Particulate Air" (HEPA) cartridge. A P100 removes fume and particulates through diffusion and attraction down to .3 (m in diameter with a 99.97 % efficiency. For those physicists out there, the force of attraction is VanderWaals force (Revoir and Bien, 1997) A combination organic vapor/P100 cartridge can be used, but the major concern would still be the wax fume generated when the aerosol condensed to form the fume particle. Gases and vapors are removed by absorption and adsorption. Filter medium for particulates are substantially different than what would be required for organic vapors.

I find it noble that so many wax manufacturers, how-to books, ski shops, and coaches insist on respiratory protection during the waxing process. However, the current situation implies that a little knowledge does more harm than good. I would be more than willing to discuss issues affecting health and safety in the waxroom. I can be reached at via email at .

Dahlqvist, M.; Alexandesson, R.; Andersson, B.; Andersson, K.; Kolmodin-Hedman, B.; Malker, H. Exposure to ski-wax smoke and health effects in ski waxers. Applied Occupational and Environmental Hygiene, 7. 689-693.
Revoir, W.H. & Bien, C-T. (1997). Respiratory Protection Handbook. Lewis: New York.
2001 TLVs(r) and BEIs(r) (2001). American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists: Cincinnati.

(Matthew T. Pauli is an active skier and industrial hygenist from Anchorage, Alaska. He promotes the use of appropriate respirators & ventilation for waxing.)

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