Tent Camping in America Is One Big Toxic Experience

Personal Health

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.

According to a California law, known as TB-117, foam couch cushions must resist an open flame for several seconds. However, when a couch catches fire, it’s not the foam that burns first – it’s the covering outside the foam. And that covering could be perfectly flammable. If the fabric on the outside of a couch cushion caught on fire, it could burn for long enough to catch the foam on the inside on fire too, despite the flame retardants.

All couches in California, plus many couches in the rest of the United States contained flame retardants until recently. If your couch has a tag touting compliance with TB-117, then it contains flame retardants for sure. If it does not have a tag, then it still has a 60 percent chance of containing flame retardants. Even after penta was banned, other flame retardants were used instead. Typically these were chlorinated tris or Firemaster 550.

Exposure to flame retardants in couches does not come from actually sitting on the couch. It comes from ingestion of dust. The flame retardant migrates out of the couch and ultimately settles in household dust. Small children and cats who spend a lot of time on the floor and put things in their mouths (or lick themselves, in the case of cats) are particularly susceptible.

Beginning in 2006, Blum worked to change TB-117 – with very little success. She had many allies on her side, but a group called Californians for Fire Safety poured millions into opposing her effort. It turned out the group consisted of the three main manufacturers of flame retardants: Albemarle, Chemtura, and Israel Chemicals, Ltd.

Blum, now a visiting scholar at UC-Berkeley’s Department of Chemistry, founded the Green Science Policy Institute in 2008, but still had trouble changing California’s law.

Then in 2012, the Chicago Tribune published an investigative series about flame retardants, uncovering “a decades-long campaign of deception that has loaded the furniture and electronics in American homes with pounds of toxic chemicals linked to cancer, neurological deficits, developmental problems and impaired fertility.”

The series chronicled phony testimony by a doctor who serves as a “star witness” for the chemical companies, described how the cigarette lobby got the fire marshals on their side, and detailed exactly how the chemical industry misrepresented data to make it appear like flame retardants saved more lives than they actually did.

“The tactics started with Big Tobacco, which wanted to shift focus away from cigarettes as the cause of fire deaths, and continued as chemical companies worked to preserve a lucrative market for their products, according to a Tribune review of thousands of government, scientific and internal industry documents,” the Trib reported.

The series led to change. In June 2012, California changed its laws requiring flame retardants in couches. The new standard is called TB-117-2013 and it does not require the use of flame retardants, although they still might be used. Instead of treating the inside part of couches, the foam, furniture manufacturers are now directed to ensure that the flame will never reach the foam inside the couch. And, fortunately, there are non-toxic ways of achieving that.

Then in 2013, HBO aired a documentary on the subject, called Toxic Hot Seat and the Environmental Protection Agency convinced the major manufacturers of the third kind of PBDE chemicals (one known as “deca”) to stop making it, completing the elimination of PBDE use in the United States.

Problem solved, right?

Not exactly. Because the law about couches was not the only one on the books. Some 13 states and Canada also require flame retardants in tents, ranging from children’s play tents to circus tents. The laws are mostly based on a voluntary industry standard called CPAI-84. This standard does not overtly specify the use of flame retardants, but it requires that tents must be able to withstand exposure to an open flame without burning more than a small, specified amount. To achieve that, manufacturers must use flame retardants – and they use them for all tents sold in the United States, not just in the specific states with flame retardant laws on the books.

As a consumer, finding out what, if anything, is in your tent is difficult. If you ask the manufacturer, they will typically tell you it’s proprietary. But a scientist at Duke, Heather Stapleton, published a study of several tents this year. Previously, the chemical of choice was the now-banned PBDE deca. Newer tents contained other chemicals like chlorinated tris (also known as TDCPP), tetrabromobisphenol-A, and triphenyl phosphate.

Like PBDEs and brominated tris, chlorinated tris and tetrabromobisphenol-A are organohalogens. Triphenyl phosphate is not; it is an organophosphate. Many common toxic pesticides are also organophosphates.

Instead of banning one chemical at a time, only to replace it with something similar and equally bad, (what Blum calls “toxic whack-a-mole”), Blum recommends red flagging six specific problematic chemical classes and exercising caution before using them. As she puts it, “there’s a real tendency, when a chemical is banned you want to keep industrial processes the same, so if a chemical is regulated, what’s the replacement? The chemical cousin. And when that’s regulated, it’s another chemical cousin. And so maybe you want to think of a whole class instead.”

Unfortunately, our laws do not require most chemicals are tested for safety unless someone is going to eat them. Food, drugs, and pesticides are checked for safety. Not chemicals used on camping tents.

Stapleton’s 2014 study found that one of the chemicals, chlorinated tris, came off on campers’ hands when they pitched their tents. Furthermore, simply washing or airing out your tent is not effective in purging it of toxic chemicals. Most tents purchased in the U.S. contain tags confirming their compliance with CPAI-84, which means they contain flame retardants of some kind. Newer tents likely won’t contain chlorinated tris, as it has been found so toxic that it is being voluntarily phased out by the manufacturer. (It causes cancer.) But they will contain something else.

If you wish to buy a flame retardant free tent, you might be able to locate a small, independent tent manufacturer online and call them to confirm they do not use flame retardants. Tents purchased in stores like Target, Walmart, or REI will most likely contain flame retardants, as will some sleeping bags. (In sleeping bags, the industry flammability standard is called CPAI-75 and it is state law in New Jersey.) Your other option is to purchase a tent from a European manufacturer.

Jim Giblin, who works for a major tent manufacturer and focuses on the flame retardant issue for the Outdoor Industry Association, feels that flame retardant standards are outdated and inappropriate.  

Giblin says “The standard was originally created for large canvas tents where there might be 20 people and they would be cooking in these tents. Where there's enough material that when it goes up in flames.” And those tents were made of waxed canvas – very much unlike a modern lightweight nylon or polyester camping tent, particularly those used for backpacking.”

Modern tents are so lightweight that there simply is not very much fuel to burn. “The danger from the fire itself seems relatively low, and the test is pretty specific about the flame going out within a certain distance,” says Giblin, referring to the tests used in flame retardant laws that allow a fire set on the tent to burn for up to a certain number of inches before it goes out. “On these small tents, if you gave it a couple more inches, it would probably self-extinguish. The danger in a small tent seems extremely low,” he says.

Current flammability standards address the possibility of an open flame. Today, Giblin worries more about asphyxiation or carbon monoxide poisoning from lanterns or stoves used inside tents, and he thinks the standards ought to focus on these dangers instead.

He worries even more about Canada’s law than he does about the laws in the U.S. Whereas many U.S. state laws are old, Canada’s law was enacted in 2011. According to Giblin, it “required about a 20% increase in the chemicals that had to be put on the products. That's a rough estimate.” The amount of chemicals used depends on the fabric of the tent as well as which chemical is used as a flame retardant.

Many companies are not very transparent about which chemicals they use, but it’s likely that those that comply with Canada’s regulations will simply increase the amount of flame retardants used in all of their tents, including those sold in the U.S. One exception is the company Nemo, which dealt with the Canadian law by declining to sell their products in Canada. Nemo’s tents still contain flame retardants to meet U.S. standards, but they did not increase the amount of chemicals used in order to comply in Canada.

Like Giblin, those in the outdoor industry who are willing to speak out are concerned about their customers’ safety both from fire as well as from exposure to toxic chemicals. Connie Yang, who was formerly employed as an engineer by Nemo (she’s since left her position), said, “The standards were developed 25 years ago at a time when the worry was in a really different place than it is now. And it turns out that the products evolved, the standards didn't. And politically, if you say 'I'm going to get rid of fire retardants in shelters’ it's not like the public would be like ‘oh thank god.’ It sounds like saying ‘I'm going to burn down the campsite.’”

And yet, she says, she could find zero instances of any deaths by fire in a tent. “I've heard anecdotally of people collecting rainwater off their tents and getting sick from that. I went back and I was doing research on deaths in a tent by fire because maybe this is really what people are worried about… I tried to do a little bit of research on on how many people have died inside a tent in the last 20 years,” she said. Yet, “in all my research, I couldn't find anything… and I'm not saying that the internet is a foolproof research tool, it just seemed like if it was more of an issue then more people would be shouting from the rooftops.” She added that in eight years at Nemo, she’d heard of zero instances of anyone burning down a tent.

Giblin concurs, noting that backpacking tents “don't lead very often to injuries or deaths for two reasons. One is that people are told not to cook in them, and two, they are also told to put them away from the fires.” After all, even with the flame retardants, the tents are not fire-proof, and backpackers still cannot cook or use fire in their tents.

With these standards still in place, and with a system that handles chemicals individually instead of by class, we are left with an environment of “toxic whack-a-mole” in which scientists like Stapleton are constantly playing catch-up to the industry, which keeps its chemicals proprietary. Once scientists can identify a new chemical used in consumer products, then they must quantify how much humans take in through various routes of exposure (dermal, ingestion, inhalation) and study whether the chemical is toxic at that level.

Over time, scientists find out the fate of the chemical in the environment as well. For example, in the case of chlorinated tris, scientists studied the developmental impacts on zebrafish and found that the chemical was present even in remote regions of the earth, “proving that [it undergoes] long-range atmospheric transport over the global oceans toward the Arctic and Antarctica.” Another study, titled “Fireproof Killer Whales,” found now-banned PBDEs in the bodies of killer whales.

But once the scientists find flame retardants in the Arctic and in killer whales, the damage is already done. We can ban that chemical, but we then move onto the next one. As Blum says, “When you choose to use these chemicals, you are making a long term decision for the future.”

The tides have already changed for flame retardants, at least in furniture. But we continue to have laws on the books requiring their use, sometimes based on outdated standards. Those in the outdoor industry like Yang and Giblin are skeptical about the impact their companies can have on these laws on their own… but they are hopeful that consumers can make a change by speaking up to their representatives as well as to retailers like REI and organizations like the Sierra Club. 

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