WARNING: KEEP ALL FLAME AND HEAT SOURCES AWAY FROM THIS TENT FABRIC: This tent meets the flammability requirements of CPAI-84. The fabric may burn if left in continuous contact with any flame source. The application of any foreign substance to the tent fabric may render the flame–resistant properties ineffective.”
If you’ve spent much time camping during a rainstorm, cooped up and bored, crawling the walls of your tent, you’ve probably noticed a tag printed with the above stern language somewhere on the fabric. It typically signifies that a tent has been coated with flame-retardant chemicals in order to pass a test that confirms the tent fabrics will resist catching flame under certain circumstances.
That standard, however, is decades old and largely conceived with large tents housing lots of people in mind. It was also written when tents were made with different materials than they are now, often canvas, some coated with paraffin wax for weatherproofing. Tent manufacturers stuck to the standard, usually using toxic flame retardant chemicals to meet the test parameters.
In recent years, REI and fellow tent manufacturers and retailers began looking into whether or not that standard should still apply to tents today, especially considering the toxicity of the chemicals used as flame retardants. Often organophosphates are used, a category of substances found in pesticides, plasticizers, and nerve gases.
The tent brands partnered with Duke University a couple years back to examine whether or not those chemicals could affect their users. It was an eye-opening study, released in 2016, that showed that not only are the chemicals present on the hands of people who set up tents, people sleeping inside them were also breathing in the flame retardant chemicals. Further, the chemicals’ composition and amount used varied, suggesting a haphazard use throughout the industry. According to the study, “application rates may not be standardized; application methods may not be adequately controlled, or other, novel [flame retardants] that were not assessed in this study are also being applied to meet the tent flammability standard requirements.”
“These chemicals aren’t good for anybody, not the people making the tents and not for the end user either.”
One of the brands involved in the study, Mountain Hardwear, took that information seriously. Starting this season, all the tents Mountain Hardwear manufacturers and sells will be free of flame retardant chemicals.
“We studied the chemicals and all looked around at each other sitting at a table and asked if any of us wanted to sleep in tents coated in those chemicals,” Mountain Hardwear president Joe Vernachio told me over the phone, referring to a company meeting where they decided to commit to ditching flame retardants. “We all said no.”
This isn’t a response to customer’s clamoring for a change either, according to Vernachio.
“We’ve had little to no consumer request for a change like this,” he said. “We redesigned these tents based on our values. These chemicals aren’t good for anybody, not the people making the tents and not for the end user either.”
You may be wondering if Mountain Hardwear will face legal repercussions from making tents without flame retardants. CPAI-84 doesn’t require the use of flame retardants, per se, it simply is a set of flammability standards manufacturers voluntarily, for the most part, adhere to. Nor is it a legal requirement across the country.
Mountain Hardwear consulted with its legal team and felt that the risk was insignificant in terms of not adhering to the CPAI-84 regulation. Vernachio feels that most manufacturers just follow the regulation because it’s there, without really questioning the toxicity of the chemicals.
The Natural Resource Defense Council has been agitating to get flame retardants removed from consumer goods for some time now, concerned that the chemicals are carcinogenic; California recently passed a bill banning flame retardants from many household products (though tents were not part of the list). Many firefighters have spoken out about their own concerns for the toxicity of flame retardants. Vernachio also pointed out that European tent manufacturers don’t use flame retardants in their tents.
Mountain Hardwear does stand to lose some sales of tents because of their decision. Some retailers won’t sell the tents for fear of liability or customers’ sheepishness. But there are also benefits besides reducing the toxicity of a product like a tent. Mountain Hardwear can use different types of materials in tents that before weren’t usable because they’d be harmed by the chemicals in flame retardants.
Does this step by Mountain Hardwear indicate a shift that may be coming for tent manufacturers across the country? Impossible to say, but it’s likely retailers will help set the tone. If they can’t or won’t sell the tents, brands will have a hard time making them.
Mountain Hardwear, for its part, feels justified and confident in its decision, one that was two years in the making.
“I think the [CPAI-84] regulation will be rewritten or voided off the books entirely,” Vernachio said. “The issue is just complacency. Nobody has done anything to change them.”