The Air in Your Camping Tent Is Full of Flame Retardants (Unless You Buy a Moonlight)

credit: The TentLab Moonlight Tent

We’ve gone on about flame retardants for years on TreeHugger, the bioaccumulating chemicals that, according to the Environmental Health Fund, "may harm the developing brain, impair sperm development, and impair thyroid function"

They are also in the fabric of our camping tents; Mike Cecot-Scherer of the TentLab pitched his tent to us recently, writing that his Moonlight tents were pretty much free of fire retardants- no PBDEs and no fluorinated water repellency treatments (no PFOAs).

PDBEs are endocrine disruptors and impair thyroid function.
PFOAs are common in the waterproofing of camping gear, and in slippery things like teflon and even dental floss.

Mike Cecot-Scherer claims they are not necessary;

Like all tents made with lightweight materials, the MoonLights are already quite fire safe. For starters (*ahem*), they're actually hard to set fire to in the first place. There are no fabric edges to light and if you do hold a flame against it until it burns, it self extinguishes almost the instant you take the flame away. There’s just not much fuel in lightweight fabrics. So the vast majority of backpacking tents made pose no fire danger to speak of AND NEVER HAVE.

I will admit to having been a bit concerned about this, having lost a childhood friend to a tent fire, although that was a long time ago and a very different kind of tent, back when people regularly used Coleman lanterns in their tents. And I really wondered how big a deal it really was, spending a little bit of time in a tent treated with these chemicals.

tested tent parts

© Components of the tents that were analyzed for flame retardant chemicals.

But according to a new study, it turns out to be a very big deal indeed. Published in Environmental Science & Technology, Characterizing Flame Retardant Applications and Potential Human Exposure in Backpacking Tents, prepared by a team led by Heather Stapleton of Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University, Durham, they checked the hands of twenty volunteers before and after they set up tents; levels of flame retardants were 62.1 times higher after than before. And campers are breathing them too:

The researchers tested the air space inside 15 different tents for a set of known flame retardants. The air samples contained varying levels of these compounds, depending on the brand of tent. Based on their measurements, the researchers estimated that campers sleeping for eight hours inside the tents could potentially inhale compound levels ranging from a few nanograms per kilogram of bodyweight to 400 nanograms per kilogram of bodyweight.

This is way below the acceptable dose set by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, but way above the levels permitted in Europe, where many of them are banned now.

moonlight tent no fly

© Moonlight tent without fly

It’s funny how we take our families camping because it is healthy and fun and we get all that fresh air, only to be breathing and handling serious doses of flame retardants. Mike Cecot-Scherer’s flame-retardant Moonlight tent looks a much bigger deal in that light.