Written by Featured, Wild Magazine

Singing cowboys and toxic tents

Many camping tents are treated with toxic flame retardant chemicals. I spoke with Kathmandu, Sea to Summit, OzTent, etc and investigated the bizarre corporate history of why flame retardants are used on tents (which includes 1940s cowboy costumes, chemical industry lobbyists, and big tobacco)…

Back in 2010, in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis, when the Aussie dollar reached parity with the US Greenback, I took advantage of low retail prices and shelled out for my first piece of ultralight hiking kit: a tent that weighed just over a kilogram. It compressed to about the size of a one litre drink bottle and made the prospect of adventures in the wild seem effortless.

On the packaging, however, I noticed a warning sticker: “This product contains chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm.” Surely this svelte object could not cause harm, I told myself. Nonetheless, I checked with the retailer, who wrote, “To meet the flammability standard in California (CPAI-84), this tent is treated with a flame retardant chemical additive.”

Flame retardants are far from benign, however. Decades of research has associated them with hormone disruption, thyroid problems, early puberty, neurotoxicity, developmental problems, liver damage, and cancer. And when used in tents, chemical flame retardants don’t just ‘stay’ in the tent. They leech out of the fabric onto the hands of people who set up the tent, which can then be ingested after touching food or from your hands to your mouth. The chemicals have also been detected in the air inside the tent and can be inhaled.

So when I began more recently searching for another lightweight tent to go hiking with my three young children, I wanted to avoid one treated with flame retardants; children are more vulnerable to exposure from environmental toxicants. But finding a safe tent turned out to be more complicated than expected, and it led me to a bizarre and byzantine story of how corporate interests created a panic over fire safety that resulted in regular but useless treatment of tents with potentially dangerous chemicals.

What’s more, in Australia, finding a safe tent is particularly problematic. In the United States, products treated with flame retardants, ranging from tents to lounges, carry labels informing buyers they contain the chemicals. In Australia, however, not only are there no requirements to use flame retardants in consumer products, and no fire safety standards for outdoor equipment, there is no labelling requirement, either. Knowing whether a product is treated with flame retardants is not easy.

Even if you take the time, as I did, to speak with Australian retailers and manufacturers, definitive answers are not always forthcoming. While some I spoke with—like Sea to Summit who call flame retardants “particularly nasty chemicals”—don’t use them at all, some manufacturers said they used flame retardants in some models but not others, some said they weren’t sure, one said they didn’t when they did, and one said all tents they sell are treated with flame retardants when they’re not. The least helpful were two well-known big-box store retailers who couldn’t give definitive answers about their house brand tents.

Read the rest at Wild Magazine, Spring 2021, Issue #181. Requires a subscription, but it’s an awesome outdoor adventure, conservation, and nature magazine – and pretty cheap at around $45/year.

I spoke to a stack of manufacturers and retailers eg. Kathmandu, Sea to Summit, OzTent, etc.

Most manufacturers don’t want to use flame retardants but due to an old Californian regulation Australian companies must if they export to the United States.

Over a few decades, the chemical industry swapped them with alternatives that also turned out to have associations with health problems.

There’s a bizarre corporate and government history of why flame retardants are used on tents – involving 1940s cowboy costumes, chemical industry lobbyists, big tobacco, and circus tents…

Many Australians don’t know their tent could be treated with toxic flame retardant chemicals.