Exposure to flame retardants in tents
If the great outdoors is calling you, you might be thinking about buying a new tent. But before you do, bear in mind that flame retardancy regulations in many countries, including the UK, also apply to tents and outdoor shelters. Flame retardants are widely used in the manufacture of soft furnishings and furniture (it is required by law) and have been linked with some serious health concerns.
One study explored whether participants were exposed to flame retardant chemicals during tents set up, and the air inside them. Organophosphate flame retardants were the most detected, with significantly higher levels taken from hand wipes after setting up the tent. They were also detected in the air samples inside the tent. This shows that the campers are potentially being exposed to these chemicals via inhalation and skin contact.
Are flame retardants really needed in tents?
Most tents are treated with flame retardants, but any fabric exposed to a naked flame will eventually burn – the chemicals slow the burning process but can’t stop it. To avoid the effects of flame retardants in tents it’s advisable to wear gloves when setting up, especially with a new tent. Once set up, ventilate well and open all areas to create a cross draft, and never cook inside a tent.
Some camping brands now offer flame retardancy free tents such as North Face but be sure to check with the manufacturer in each country before making a purchase. You can also find organic cotton tents, but check the details carefully.
The health effects of exposure to flame retardants
Fire retardancy chemicals are released into ambient air in a process called offgassing, both in our houses and inside tents. These chemicals are associated with adverse health effects including developmental reproductive effects and neuro-toxicity.
Breast Cancer UK suggests the US and UK have the highest levels of flame retardants in human body fluids and defines them as endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) due to their effects on the hormonal system.
Flame retardants have been found to release toxic chemicals when they burn, posing a higher health risk than the fire itself according to researchers. One study found that they cause greater environmental and health impacts that might outweigh the safety benefits, and increase the fire toxicity.
Staying dry outdoors
When choosing outdoor clothing bear in mind that many brands still rely on the use of Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) for waterproofing; they are considered to be an endocrine disrupting group of chemicals. Teflon and Perfluorochemicals (PFCs) are also used in the manufacturing process by many clothing brands to add durability, water resistance and wrinkle free effects to clothing.
PFASs are used by thousands of clothing brands, but some leading brands including, H&M and Levi’s have removed PFAS from their manufacturing processes due to health concerns. There is an industry wide call to ban PFAS in Europe. When possible, wear natural organic fibres against the skin such as cotton, bamboo, hemp, or wool which is naturally water resistant.