Camping Tents Toxic? Duke Study Reveals Troubling Chemical Exposure

Could setting up (and sleeping in) a tent poison your system? A study from Duke University looked at backpacking tents from five brands and came away with potential industry-changing conclusions.

hand in tent

Common flame-retardant chemicals applied to tents can leach onto your hands, and into your lungs, as you set up a shelter and then go to sleep inside. The culprit flame-retardants include chemicals triphenyl phosphate, tris phosphate, and more, which Duke University researchers note are “associated with adverse health effects.”

A new study, “Characterizing Flame Retardant Applications and Potential Human Exposure in Backpacking Tents,” was published in the latest edition of Environmental Science & Technology, a respected journal based in Washington D.C. Authors Genna Gomes, Peyton Ward, Amelia Lorenzo, Kate Hoffman, and Heather M. Stapleton submitted the study in February, and it was published last month.

camping tent chemicals

GearJunkie readers might remember the BPA scare with water bottles several years ago. This Duke study, which exposes the presence of toxic chemicals in tent fabric, reminds us of the BPA debacle that disrupted the water-bottle market, causing calamity and massive consumer push-back. Brands across the industry dropped bisphenol-a, known as BPA, from their product lines.

It’s too early to comment on the repercussions of the Duke study. As the researchers note, previous studies on flame-retardant chemical exposure was focused on the furniture and electronics industries.

Tents, however, were somehow missed and “remain largely unstudied in regards to their chemical treatments,” the study notes. However, previous studies of the health effects of fire-retardant chemicals have led to furniture and other products made without the chemicals to appease consumer demand.

Chemicals In Tents: The Study

To test for chemical interaction, the Duke researchers procured two-person backpacking tents made in 2014 and measured exposure after 20 volunteers set up the shelters. The researchers did not name the brands tested, but did note that they volunteered to take part and donated tents for the study.

The researchers tested different tent materials, including tent base, fly, mesh, and wall. Notes the study, “The tent base and tent rainfly textiles appear to be the most commonly treated components.”

tent fabric

Dermal and inhalation levels were charted, assessing the chemical exposure by collecting hand wipes from 20 volunteers before and after tent setup. Air samplers placed inside assembled tents measured potential exposure to the lungs.

Levels of exposure were significantly higher post-tent setup compared to pre setup, “and in the case of TDCIPP [tris phosphate], levels were 29 times higher post setup,” the article notes.

Inhalation exposure also charted high, with air samplers placed inside assembled tents measuring for TDCIPP, TCEP, and TPHP. “Active air sampling inside the tents also indicates that inhalation is a likely route of exposure to TDCIPP, TCEP, and TPHP. The highest potential inhalation exposure based on the air concentrations is expected for TCEP,” the report states.

TDCPP: The New BPA?

TDCPP camping tent fire retardant
The chemical structure of TDCPP

In 2011, TDCPP – another name for TDCIPP – was listed under California’s Proposition 65 as a known carcinogen. Lab rats fed with the compound showed increased formation of brain and liver tumors. TDCIPP has also been associated with reproductive effects in humans, such as lowered sperm count and hormone regulation among men living in homes with elevated levels of the flame retardant found in house dust.

The take-aways are complex. The Duke study and corresponding eight-page article in Environmental Science & Technology cite premise, process, and exposure levels. It notes fire-retardant chemicals are associated with adverse health effects “such as reproductive impairments and neurodevelopmental deficits.”

Fire Retardant Requirements

Fire retardant use in tents is driven by state, not federal laws. Fire retardants are only required in seven states (California, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Louisiana, Minnesota, and Michigan) and Canada, which is enough to drive most brands to use them throughout entire product lines.

Within the test group of five tents, variability in concentrations of the chemicals was found, as various chemicals can be used as fire retardants, and in different concentrations. This information is rarely, if ever, shared with consumers.

Some brands chose not to add fire retardants to tents, stating that the light fabrics used, while combustible, are not remarkably dangerous if used with common sense.

What effect this study, and any follow-up studies, has on these laws remains to be seen. While it shows that campers will likely be exposed to potentially-damaging chemicals while setting up and sleeping in tents, the study calls for more research as results are far from conclusive.

We look forward to industry involvement in future studies and hope to see steps taken to protect consumers who choose to pitch a home in the great outdoors.

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