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Tent Camping in America Is One Big Toxic Experience

A govt. law requires a pretty hazardous toxin in all tent fabric.

Photo Credit: gorillaimages /


Believe it or not, many U.S. state governments and the government of Canada require the use of toxic chemicals in tents – all kinds of tents, from children’s play tents to camping tents to circus tents – even though the chemicals have been proven harmful and they often provide minimal benefit. The states with these laws are Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Louisiana, Minnesota, Michigan, and California. (New Jersey also requires these chemicals in sleeping bags.)

The chemicals in question are flame retardants. While the laws were likely passed by well-meaning legislators decades ago, more facts have come to light about the safety and effectiveness of the flame retardant chemicals themselves as well as about the motivations of those who lobbied for the laws in the first place.

Even if you do not camp or use tents, this case is important as flame retardants are commonly used in many household items such as children’s pajamas, furniture, and electronics and because it illustrates a failure in our legal system to keep consumers safe and allow them to make informed decisions.

The story of these chemicals begins in the 1970s, when laws were first passed requiring the use of flame retardants in everything from the foam inside couch cushions to children’s pajamas. That was when Arlene Blum, a mountaineer and chemist committed to climbing some of the world’s most dangerous mountains and fighting the irresponsible use of some of the most dangerous chemicals, came on the scene.

She was then a postdoctoral fellow, and decided to investigate a flame retardant used in children’s pajamas called brominated tris. She published a paper showing the chemical was harmful , and a few months later, it was banned from use in children’s PJs. (Children’s pajamas do not currently contain harmful  flame retardants.) 

Then, very little happened for several decades.

In 2009, the world did a 180 on the most commonly used flame retardants, a group of chemicals called PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers).  That year, two of the three commercial formulations of PBDEs were added to the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, a very short list of the worst of the worst chemicals that the 150 countries in the convention agreed to stop producing, importing, exporting, and using.

The chemicals on the Convention’s list include pesticides like DDT and its relatives and some of the worst industrial chemicals and byproducts, like PCBs and dioxins. DDT and related pesticides fall into a family of chemicals called organohalogens. These are organic (carbon-containing) molecules that contain at least one halogen atom: chlorine, fluorine, bromine, or iodine. DDT and its many now-banned cousins (aldrin, dieldrin, endrin, heptachlor, hexachlorobenzene, mirex, toxaphene, lindane, and chlordane) are all chlorine-containing organohalogens. PBDEs are also organohalogens, but they contain bromine.

“When you have carbon bonded to chlorine, fluorine, or bromine, you have a very strong bond,” Blum explains about organohalogens. “These molecules tend to be persistent. There are no natural molecules in mammalian biochemistry with carbon bonded to chlorine, fluorine, or bromine, so our bodies don’t really know how to deal with them.”

One of the PBDEs banned in 2009 was the dominant chemical used in the foam in couch cushions in the United States between 1975 and 2004. Over the long term, exposure to this chemical, called “penta” for short, causes endocrine disruption, neurodevelopmental harm, reproductive harm, immune suppression, and cancer. One thing it didn’t do in couches? Prevent fires. In fact, it makes them more toxic. When they burn, flame retardants produce more soot, more smoke, and more carbon monoxide, as well as cancer causing dioxins.

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