REI Pursuing New Testing Method to Eliminate Flame Retardants

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The co-op plans to stop using the chemical treatment in its brand tents as soon as 2020.

REI Co-op has shared plans to adopt a new method to test for flame resistance in its tents, which will allow the brand to transition away from flame-retardant finishes beginning in fall 2020. The co-op will also begin exploring new lightweight, durable materials that were previously unavailable due to incompatibility with flame-retardant chemical coatings.

This announcement is a major milestone in a long journey. “Finding a solution took extensive collaboration across a wide range of industry partners and passionate co-op employees,” says Scott F. Smith, manager of test engineering for REI Co-op. 

In the early 1900s, fires in large event pavilions (think: circus tents) weren’t uncommon. At this time, tents were made of cotton canvas and coated in paraffin, a highly flammable wax. These fires resulted in numerous injuries and fatalities, which in turn lead to the creation of tent-flammability testing standards and several state-level regulations in the 1970s. Since then, tent uses and the materials used to build tents have evolved, while the testing standard has not. 

Until recently, the only tent-flammability testing method in North America was a standard called CPAI-84. Created in 1976 by the Canvas Products Association International, this standard saw minor revisions in 1995 and has remained largely unchanged. Since some states require tents sold within their boundaries be “flame-resistant,” brands have relied on CPAI-84 to meet state-level expectations. To comply with this standard, most tent fabrics must be coated with additive flame-retardant finishes, which are intended to prevent the start and spread of fire. 

The problem with this scenario is twofold: First, the CPAI-84 flammability standard itself is woefully out of date. It was created to test for fire risk in paraffin-coated canvas event tents and ended up being used to test all tents, from backpacking and car-camping tents to ice-fishing shelters. Second, studies show that some of the chemicals used in flame-retardant coatings (which have also been used in products like furniture, mattresses, children’s toys and building materials) are potentially harmful both to the environment and to human health

After it co-sponsored a study in 2015 that showed that people who handle car-camping and backpacking tents extensively (like tent makers) are exposed to the potentially harmful flame-retardant chemicals, REI partnered with the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), other brands, standard-setting groups and regulatory agencies in the U.S. and Canada to find a better solution. 

The cohort gathered a decade’s worth of data on tent-related injuries from around the world, both in countries where CPAI-84 has been in use (the U.S. and Canada) and where it hasn’t (Japan, Australia, England and the EU). The results showed that fire-related injuries are low—in both tents treated with flame retardants and those that are not. Researchers believe this finding is due to the evolution of lightweight, synthetic materials, which are inherently lower risk for flammability. 

Together, the group used these findings to support the creation of a new testing method—CGSB 182.1—that outlines a more realistic approach for assessing burn properties of more types of fabrics. For example, it takes into consideration that many synthetic materials melt away from flames, rather than ignite. 

The standard group in Canada, CGSB, is on track to approve this new standard by the end of 2019. Once it’s finalized, REI plans to adopt the new standard’s testing method for tent flammability (in place of CPAI-84) in fall 2020 products. Immediately, this means REI Co-op designers will be able to consider eliminating flame retardants in certain materials and products. Longer term, this transition will allow designers to explore new materials for tents that were not previously available due to incompatibilities with the flame-retardant coatings needed to pass CPAI-84.  

“The work doesn’t stop here,” says Genna Heath, sustainable materials and innovation project manager at REI and one of the Duke researchers who led the original 2015 research. “Ideally, this new test method will be adopted in the U.S. and replace CPAI-84 altogether. The transition to the new testing method is a welcomed change by our partners in the supply chain, and I’m excited about the new options it will allow us to provide for our members and customers.”

Eventually, REI Co-op designers hope to transition away from using flame retardants fully, though there may be some instances in certain products or materials where application is necessary. REI’s wholesale brands will make their own decisions about how to comply with state-level regulations. 

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