Protecting Outdoorists From Fires and Fire Retardants

Find out how the outdoor industry is leading efforts to research, reduce and eliminate potentially harmful flame-retardant chemicals and the antiquated fire-safety regulations that put them into play more than 30 years ago.

By Frederick Reimers October 11, 2016

One of Leah Freed’s roles as physical lab test manager for gear maker MSR is burning tent fabric. At her Seattle laboratory, she performs several tests on the fabrics that comprise MSR’s lightweight backpacking tents to make sure they comply with flammability standards. One such test is to place a burning tablet—like a flaming Alka Seltzer tab—on a 9-square-inch swatch of tent floor fabric held taut by an 8-inch circular clamp. The burning tablet is meant to simulate a burning ember. To meet current standards, and to make it to MSR’s customers, the tablet must extinguish itself within an inch of the clamp.

The nylon fabric stops burning, at least in part, because it is treated with flame retardant (FR) chemicals. Freed is glad that her tents pass the tests, but she has some worries about the chemicals used to allow them to do so. Several FR chemicals have been linked to reproductive and developmental problems and have been phased out of furniture in the United States due to public safety concerns. “We want our customers to be safe, whether from flames or from chemical exposure, so we are carefully looking at the best way to do that,” Freed says. Approaches include using the best possible FR chemicals and even forgoing them altogether. Freed notes that FR chemicals aren’t required on tents sold in Europe. “We are studying that to see if it’s an option that makes sense [in North America],” she says.

A 2016 Duke University study published in April in the journal Environmental Science and Technology examined potential human exposure to FR compounds used in lightweight backpacking tents. The study generated considerable media attention when it found that trace amounts of FR compounds used in widely sold tents were found on the testers’ hands after handling the tents and in air samples taken from inside the erected tents. Some of the compounds detected have been linked to adverse health issues like cancer, altered hormone function and neurological and developmental problems. Tent manufacturers and retailers are concerned because flammability standards in seven states and Canada cannot be met without using FR chemicals. The predominant U.S. tent flammability standard—CPAI-84—has not been revised for 21 years and was originally written to cover a wide set of tents including canvas tents. Over the years, the standard grew to cover most categories of tents and awnings, without consideration to the lightweight synthetic materials often used in camping and backpacking tents.

Far from being caught by surprise by the issue, however, Freed is one of several industry leaders who collaborated with the Duke study and has also served on an Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) flame retardant chemistries task force since 2015.

The Duke researchers hung air samplers inside 15 different 2014-model two-person tents from a range of brands to test for known flame retardants compounds, including Tris (1,3-dichloroisopropyl) phosphate (TDCIPP) and Tris (2-chloroethyl) phosphate (TCEP), which are listed as carcinogens under California’s Prop 65. They published potential exposure levels from five tents that are on the order of 41 to 398 ng/kg bw/day for TDCIPP and 22 to 210 ng/kg bw/day for TCEP for adults. The potential exposure varies based on the tent and other factors like time spent in the tent and weather. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission does not have any consumer safety limits for FR chemical exposure.

The researchers also checked the hands of 20 volunteers before and after setting up tents. The levels of organophosphate flame retardants on the skin were significantly higher after set-up than before. Of course, says Genna Heath, one of the study’s authors and now sustainable chemistry program manager for REI, “children are likely to experience higher exposure to flame retardants and other chemicals because of their lower body weight.”


Flame Retardant Standards: A Controversial History 

Flame retardant compounds have been applied to products like children’s pajamas, automobile upholstery and consumer electronics since the 1970s. In 2012, however, the Chicago Tribune published an award-winning series that exposed a deceptive campaign by the tobacco and chemical industries to promote FR compounds, despite research showing the chemicals provide little protection from furniture fires. In response to those reports and others, in 2014, California required that furniture makers label products containing any amount of several FR compounds and also made the standards possible to achieve without using FR compounds. For example, sofa cushions no longer had to withstand an open flame for 12 seconds, an unrealistic expectation. The new regulations instead require the furniture to withstand a “smolder test” that approximates a person leaving a lighted cigarette on a couch. As a result, most furniture makers have ceased using FR chemicals to meet required safety standards.

“With the increased attention on flame retardants in a whole range of products, it made sense to see if the same issues of transferability existed in camping tents,” says Heath. “This study is the first step.”


Flame Retardant Standards For Tents: Antiquated At Best

In 1944, a Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus tent in Hartford, Connecticut caught fire and killed 167 people. The canvas tent had recently been weatherproofed with 6,000 gallons of gasoline and 1,800 pounds of paraffin, essentially making it a giant candle. The Hartford Circus fire is one of the worst fire disasters in U.S. history.

Although more than 25 years had passed when regulators and manufacturers established flammability standards in the 1970s, they were likely doing so to avoid disasters like Hartford. In the 1970s, tents—whether for events or for camping—were predominantly made of cotton canvas.

Presently, seven states (California, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Louisiana, Minnesota, and Michigan) and Canada all have tent flammability regulations that make FR compounds necessary for lightweight synthetic backpacking tents. Each state’s standard is slightly different, so most manufacturers simply meet the most stringent standard—Canada’s—because it doesn’t make economic sense to create different products for different markets. The standards haven’t been revised since 1995.

“It’s a frustration . . . we have an antiquated set of regulations (CPAI-84) that came from oil-treated canvas and still applies broadly to all sorts of tents, including event tents,” says Borg Norum, manager of global product compliance and material traceability for Mountain Hardwear and a member of the OIA FR task force. “Those sorts of tents have entirely different burn characteristics from a lightweight backpacking tent.”


The Outdoor Industry Gets Proactive

Even before the Duke study was completed, tent manufacturers in the U.S. and in Canada began to examine the flammability standards. In February 2014, in response to California’s revised flammability standards and the listing of FR compounds on Prop 65, Canadian authorities began revising their own flammability standard for lightweight camping tents.

In 2015, when some of the listed FR compounds were found in the supply chain, OIA formed its task force. It includes representatives from several tent manufacturers, some of whom also serve on the American Standards and Testing Methods (ASTM), Health Canada and the Canadian General Standards Board (CGSB) committees. “We want to understand what the risk of exposure is for a recreational camper,” says Norum. “We owe it to our customers and to the environment.”

The first step for the OIA task force was to make sure all tent manufacturers were in compliance with laws concerning FR chemistries. Currently 12 U.S. states, including New York and California, as well as South Korea, the European Union and Canada, have banned or restricted certain FR chemistries.

The task force is also performing research to make sure they are using the best available FR compounds and to head off any so-called regrettable substitutions. “Some compounds that are deemed safer from a human-health standpoint might be more detrimental from an environmental standpoint,” says Norum. “It’s important that we don’t switch compounds and then find out that the substituted alternative ends up being worse.”

Most important, the task force is working to ensure that existing flammability standards make sense and to follow the furniture industry’s lead in revising them if necessary. Several tent manufacturers are voting members of ASTM as well as Health Canada and CGSB, so they can work from within the system. “Currently there is no data out there that shows these chemicals are providing any benefit to consumers,” says Heath. “It’s our job to generate that data and then make decisions based on real science.”

Norum’s counterpart at Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC), Joël Mertens, agrees: “We need to be sure that the flammability standards and the manufacturing techniques available to pass them make sense for the product.” MEC’s material technologies integrity engineer, Merten’s sits on both the OIA task force and a CGSB committee to advise on the new standards. That means devising better flammability tests—like the ones Freed performs—for lightweight nylon tents. “We need to be sure that the tests don’t stifle innovation,” says Martens, by restricting the materials or design of tents.

One solution could even be eliminating FR compounds altogether. Flame Retardant compounds aren’t required on tents sold in Europe. The OIA task force is proceeding cautiously there, however. “There isn’t a lot of data about injuries from burning tents,” says Beth Jensen, OIA’s director of sustainable business innovation. “We are working to get that.”

Currently, Health Canada and CGSB are taking the lead in revising the tent flammability standards, and the standard-setting group that oversees the tent flammability requirements in the U.S., ASTM is partnering in the standard revision effort, says Heath. Both standard-setting groups want to pursue a standard that is based on data and that addresses the true hazards associated with modern camping and backpacking tents. She says there may be some findings in 2017 but that 2018 is more likely. American standards may change soon thereafter. “We aren’t going to rush this, though,” she says. “There is very little data out there, and good research takes time.”