What connects cross country skiing and chemical safety?

Sam Lovell, Project Manager.

An idyllic afternoon gliding through fresh snow may seem as far removed as you can get from Washington, D.C. decision-making about toxic chemicals. However, as recently reported by Outside Magazine, there’s an intriguing connection here that ought to give skiers, and the rest of us, some pause.

Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved a new chemical for use in ski wax. Just a few months before, the agency had planned to deny the chemical market entry based on the concern, among others, that exposure could “waterproof the lungs” – causing severe, acute harm. Due to the abrupt reversal in EPA’s decision, EDF began looking further into this case and made public records and Freedom of Information Act requests.

The intervening steps that resulted in this chemical getting the green light to market reveal serious problems in EPA’s new chemicals program regarding transparency and industry influence.

We learned that the chemical in question belongs to the class known as “PFAS” that are used to make products grease-, stain-, and water-resistant. The chemicals have recently received national attention as communities have grappled with drinking water contaminated with the compounds. Extremely persistent in the environment, PFAS have been linked to cancer, developmental issues, and other harmful health effects.

Rather than go through the standard review process for new chemicals under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) – itself fraught with problems as implemented under this administration – Swix (the company) had applied for a “low-volume exemption” (LVE) for use of its particular PFAS. This meant that the review process would be even more expedited and even more information about the chemical kept confidential since they planned to import less than 10,000 kilograms of the chemical per year.

As reported by Outside, we found that, following the agency’s initial denial of the LVE, Swix “hired a Washington law firm…to write the agency and paint a dire picture of what would happen if approval weren’t granted.” Stunningly, the law firm said that the company, “might have ‘no choice but to revert to more environmentally harmful’ wax-making processes simply to ‘stay in business.’” The company got its approval, with virtually no conditions attached other than the volume limit.

There’s simply not enough information to determine whether the wax will harm consumers when it is applied or the environment when it wears off skis (a situation that could have been remedied had EPA required testing of the chemical). However, this case exemplifies how companies can apply pressure under this administration and readily get potentially dangerous chemicals on the market, despite safeguards in the law meant to ensure careful scrutiny and testing so as to better protect health. Of particular concern is the agency’s LVE program, which “since its inception in 1985, allowed applicants to cloak their identity,” and continues to allow hundreds of chemicals onto the market with limited agency scrutiny and no public transparency.

Read the Outside article to get the full details on this case – including the ski industry’s fraught relationship with PFAS-containing ski wax.

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