Understanding Flame Retardants in Camping and Backpacking Tents

Learn more in our May, 25, 2021 article on this issue.

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Last week, researchers from Duke University published a study co-sponsored by REI on flame retardant treatments in camping tents.

We sponsored this work because we felt that the industry had an opportunity to learn more as we think about developing new approaches and technologies for our members. The Outdoor Industry Association Sustainability Working Group is leading this work and you can learn more in their “Flame Retardant (FR) Chemistries” backgrounder.

A quick explanation of what flame retardants are and why they are used

Flame retardants are applied to prevent or slow the spread of fire in potentially flammable materials. These additives are the most effective and commonly used treatments applied to camping and backpacking tent fabrics to meet regulatory flammability requirements.

REI decided to study the topic

Although flame retardants offer the potential benefit of fire reduction, research suggests that some of these chemicals may be harmful to people and the environment. In order to better understand the chemicals being used, exposure and the potential impacts, REI and other leading U.S. tent brands partnered with Duke University two years ago to dig deeper into this class of chemistry.

The results of this project showed that backpacking tents included in the study were treated with some flame retardants chemicals that are used in a variety of consumer products, but have been linked to a variety of potential health effects.

Our understanding is advancing, but there is more to learn

There is a growing body of knowledge about human exposure to flame retardants from consumer products, but the data we have today are not comprehensive. Research does indicate that exposure to flame retardant chemicals while camping and backpacking outdoors may be less than exposure from using other treated products or spending time in enclosed public places. That said, the Duke research helped REI and the outdoor industry identify areas for improvement, as well as ways for campers to reduce their personal flame retardant exposure.

What we have done so far

At REI we have chosen to eliminate certain additives from REI-branded products and to use better alternatives. The findings of the Duke study have helped us to arrive at that decision. If you are in an REI store, all REI branded tents comply with industry flammability standards. We have also openly shared information with our employees so that they are well informed. More broadly, to drive progress through the industry as a whole, REI and other tent brands partnered with the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) and formed the Flame Retardant Task Force. This task force is working with ASTM, the agency currently responsible for the tent flammability requirements, to re-evaluate the standard.

Why we challenged the standard

The current tent flammability standard, CPAI-84, was created in 1976 to limit the risk of fire in large paraffin-coated canvas tents, like those used to host a circus. This standard has not been revisited in over 20 years. In that time, tent fabrics, sizes and intended uses have greatly evolved, which has left the CPAI-84 standard outdated.

What you can do to reduce your exposure to flame retardants while camping

  • Wash your hands after setting up a tent or wear gloves when setting it up.
  • Use the venting systems.
  • Leave the rain fly off the tent when possible, to increase ventilation.
  • Avoid using heat sources inside your tent, including cooking stoves, lanterns or candles.

What we believe should happen next

We continue to engage with our partners and ASTM to re-evaluate the applicability of the standard to modern camping and backpacking tents, but updates to the flammability standard by ASTM can take time. REI has made changes to the flame retardants used on REI brand tents, and we will continue to evolve as standards change and new science becomes available. We are also exploring whether brands should have the freedom to choose whether to apply flame retardant to tents sold in the U.S., which has been the approach in other parts of the world.

Additional resources