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`Faster' ski waxes may carry health risk

Update: There has been a real effort by ski wax companies to develop waxes that allow skis and snowboards to glide better on the snow. The problem is that many of these waxes now contain fluorocarbons, silicone and graphite, and there has been some concern about the potential health risks of applying these waxes since heat can yield fairly toxic gases from these substances.

Luckily, the heat source used to apply these waxes must be at a moderate temperature to avoid burning the ski or snowboard base. Nevertheless, vaporization of ski waxes does take place and there is some evidence that these vapors may have an adverse effect on pulmonary function.In a study published in the October issue of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 10 healthy adult subjects were tested to see if waxing skis would affect pulmonary function. None of the subjects were smokers and none had pulmonary disease, and none had been exposed to ski wax for the previous 5 months.

Waxing was done in a small room with two subjects participating. Two pairs of cross-country skis were waxed with a paraffin wax, then scraped and brushed; then they were waxed again with a fluorinated wax and brushed. The iron temperature for paraffin was 125 degrees and for the fluorinated wax was 160 degrees C.

Lung tests were performed just before waxing, immediately after waxing and then again 5 to 6 hours after waxing. Subjects were also asked to evaluate themselves for lung congestion or other pulmonary symptoms (chest tightness, coughing, wheezing, etc.). A subset of five subjects repeated the measurements on a separate day without any exposure to ski waxing. Interestingly, exposure to ski waxing induced no significant changes in lung function. There was a small decrease in diffusion capacity (5 percent) immediately after waxing, but this effect was small and short-lived. These authors concluded that moderate exposure to ski waxing has no significant acute effects. However, the long-term or chronic effects are not known and were not evaluated in this study.

Update No. 2: How do you keep exercising outdoors when the weather cools off? The following ideas help me keep exercising outdoor except in really bad weather:

1. Wear a hat (and scarf when really cold). There is so much blood circulating close to the skin in the head and neck area that heat loss is a real problem unless you keep this area covered.

2. Wear layers of clothes and a jacket that can be zipped on the outside. Layers of clothing are much warmer than one heavy cover. I wear a cotton T-shirt under a zippered jacket for moderate cold and add a sweater under a jacket when it is colder. Many runners use polypropylene material next to the skin to help wick moisture away. The zippered jacket helps because you can adjust the amount of heat loss depending on wind direction and rate of exercise.

3. Wear gloves. Hands get very cold very rapidly and need to be covered for you to be comfortable exercising outdoors.

4. Drink plenty of liquids. We don't notice how much sweat loss occurs because of the cold, but we still need plenty of water.

5. Warm up before starting and cool down as you finish. The body needs more time for muscles to warm up and cool down during the cold. If you have a chronic medical problem of some kind (heart disease, asthma, diabetes) be sure to check with your personal physician before exercising in the cold.