There have been media reports around the presence of flame retardant (FR) chemicals in tents and their potential health hazards. At the center of these reports is a Duke University study on potential human exposure to FR compounds used in tents. Mountain Safety Research and other tent brands worked with Duke University on this study to help our industry gain a better understanding of the potential risk posed by the chemicals in use. Here we share some of the study’s findings and the work that MSR is doing to lead the way on this issue.
The focus of the Duke University study
Flame retardant (FR) chemicals are added to a host of consumer products, including tents, to meet flammability standards, which are required by law in seven U.S. states and Canada. The Duke University study (2016) showed a correlation between flame retardant applications to backpacking tents and potential human exposure to the chemicals. Trace amounts of FR compounds used in tents to meet the mandatory requirements of the United States and Canada were found on the testers’ hands after handling the tents, and in air samples taken from the inside of each tent being tested.
In its published data, the study determined the exposure rate for an adult camper to some of the tested FR chemicals in the tents. Some of those chemicals have an Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) “safe harbor level,” or maximum exposure level bearing no significant carcinogenic risk. It is important to note that the calculated exposure rate for an adult camper after sleeping in a tent for 8 hours falls well below that safe harbor limit. However, we at MSR are still concerned about the potential human exposure, and we are looking into safer alternatives. In the meantime, to minimize the potential for exposure, MSR recommends that campers and backpackers wash hands thoroughly before cooking or handling food.
MSR is actively working on the flame retardant issue
MSR has a long history of being proactive to help ensure the health and safety of consumers, and our goal is to work towards removing FR compounds from our tents in the markets that don’t require them. In addition, MSR is working with the Canadian government and the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) to reassess FR standards that govern our industry.
Currently, there is no global flammability requirement for camping and backpacking tents. MSR follows Canadian FR requirements (the highest standard for flame resistance) and U.S. FR requirements, both of which are based on a testing protocol that is over 20 years old.
The regulations haven’t kept up with the evolving technology or growing research on actual flame risks posed by lightweight modern camping tents or the potential environmental and health risks posed by chemicals in FRs. To tackle this problem, MSR employees have taken on industry leadership roles to address the FR issue and help update FR regulations.
Leah Freed, Physical Lab Test Manager for MSR, is co-chair of the Flame Retardant Task Force, a subgroup of the Outdoor Industry Association’s (OIA) Chemical Management Working Group (CMWG). The task force, which published a Priority Issues Brief on “Flame Retardant (FR) Chemistries” (2016), focuses on disseminating knowledge to other OIA member brands as well as to regulatory agencies and the general public.
MSR Shelter Category Manager Terry Breaux is on the Canadian General Standards Board (CGSB) Committee on Tents, a federal government organization focused on developing a national standard for flammability and labeling requirements for tents. As a voting committee member representing a consumer product brand, Terry is helping to update the Canadian standard for flame resistance for tents sold into the Canadian market.
MSR is working to find better solutions
As a brand founded with the purpose of making outdoor gear safer, we are working with governmental and industry organizations to find better solutions to FRs within markets that require them, work to remove FRs from markets that don’t, and change and improve the regulations so that we can continue to concentrate on designing the best and safest gear available.
While the Duke University study noted that the “generalizability of these results may be limited due to the small number of tents sampled and study participants,” we at MSR consider it an important step forward to understanding the potential risk of FR chemical use. For further reading, see the references below.
- Duke University study (April 15, 2016): “Characterizing Flame Retardant Applications and Potential Human Exposure in Backpacking Tents,” Environmental Science & Technology
- MSR Tent FAQ Page – Understanding Prop 65
- Outdoor Industry Association’s Priority Issues Brief (March 2016): “Flame Retardant (FR) Chemistries”
-  G. Gomes, P. Ward, A. Lorenzo, K. Hoffman & H. Stapleton, “Characterizing Flame Retardant Applications and Potential Human Exposure in Backpacking Tents,” Environ. Sci. Technol. 50 (2016), 5338−45, pubs.acs.org/est
-  Ibid., 5341-2. The Duke University researchers’ estimated exposure range for an adult camper to TDCPP is 2.6 to 9.4 ng/kg bw/day, “assuming an adult sleeps 8 h inside a tent,” 5341.
-  OEHHA lists the safe harbor level for TDCPP at 5.4 µg/day: http://oehha.ca.gov/proposition-65/chemicals/tris13-dichloro-2-propyl-phosphate-tdcpp
-  G. Gomes et al., 5344.