The Chemistry of Your Tent

Flame Retardant Chemicals in Tents Rub Off On Campers
June 8, 2016

With summer rolling around, camping season is about to start. That means campfires, backpacks and perhaps most importantly, tents. 

New research from Duke University, however, shows that some potentially dangerous chemicals commonly used in making tents can wind up getting on our skin and into our lungs through the air inside the tent.

Specifically, the chemicals are called organophosphate flame retardants (OPFRs), which keep the tent from catching fire, but also come with health risks such as decreased fertility in men, neurotoxicity, liver damage and cancer.

TentFlame retardant chemicals are common in many everyday products like clothes and furniture. OPFRs have even been in the news over the past few years because of their prevalence in couch cushions and their ability to enter the human body from there.

Duke graduate student and lead author of the study Genna Gomes wanted to see whether these same flame retardant chemicals had the ability to move into the human body from camping tents. 

Gomes and her colleagues asked 20 volunteers to assemble tents manufactured in 2014 by five different companies. All of the tents tested met an industry standard for flame resistance called CPAI-84

They tested each tent for four different OPFRs, then had the volunteers assemble the tents. The researchers swabbed the volunteers’ hands before and after they set up the tents and tested each swab for OPFRs.

They found that the volunteers had significantly more OPFRs on their hands after setting up the tents than they did before. Twenty-nine times as much of one specific chemical, TDCIPP (short for tris(1,3-dichloro-2-propyl)phosphate) showed up on volunteers’ hands after they set up the tents. The other three OPFRs were roughly twice as prevalent on the volunteers’ hands after set up.

The researchers also sampled the air inside each tent after setup and tested that for OPFRs. Again OPFR concentrations were much higher in the air inside the tents than in tents that did not have OPFRs.

The amounts of each OPFR were very small: millionths to hundred-millionths of a gram on the hands or in a cubic meter of air. Therefore, it is important to note that you are not signing your death warrant by putting up a tent in the back yard.

TDCIPPThat said, chronic exposure to these chemicals is where health problems begin to appear. Many OPFRs are considered persistent which means the body has a hard time breaking them down and getting rid of them. That persistence allows OPFRs to build up in the body over long periods of time.

And these chemicals seem to infiltrate children more rapidly and to greater effect than adults. Previous studies from Duke have shown that children get more OPFRs into their bodies by coming in closer contact with dust (where OPFR molecules can hitch a ride) and by putting their hands in their mouths after touching things with OPFRs. 

In this study, the researchers calculated that children sleeping in tents would get a higher dose of OPFRs per kilogram of body weight by simple virtue of their bodies being smaller.

Flame retardants are not required on tents by the Federal government—a few states not including North Carolina require them—but many companies do add them to their products in order to sell across the country. That said, there are companies that do make their tents without flame retardants.

This study, published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology is small and for the large subset of the population who do not use their tent more than once or twice per year, this type of exposure is not much of a danger.

It does serve as a reminder to be mindful of the materials and chemicals that make up different things. Chemistry and chemicals can bring health, harm, pollution and beauty wherever we go. Even if we're going into the great outdoors.

—Daniel Lane

Daniel Lane covers science, medicine, engineering and the environment in North Carolina.