With back-to-school right around the bend, you and your family are probably spending as much time outdoors as possible. Whether you’re soaking up rays at a local pool, trekking through the woods at a nearby park or sharing stories and laughs around a campfire, you’re probably bringing your favorite outdoor gear with you.
One reason we love our gear is because it protects us from any kind of weather. Manufacturers of these products often add a protective shield, allowing us to stay outside longer. This sounds great, but we should be aware of the toxic chemicals that lurk in some of our favorite gear, as high-performance items often employ chemistry to get the desired effect.
Harmful Chemicals in Outdoor Gear
Polyvinyl chloride, commonly known as PVC, is a synthetic plastic polymer used to simulate leather, latex, or rubber in products. Bags, bottles, sporting equipment and outdoor gear manufacturers use PVC for its diverse use and water-resistant qualities. It’s been widely used in the industry since a German scientist patented it in 1913. PVC is known to be a highly toxic plastic to both humans and the environment. Despite this, manufacturers still use PVC to make tents, pool toys, and outerwear. PVCs are also dangerous to humans and the environment as sources of plastic softener chemicals called phthalates. Studies of animals revealed that exposure to phthalates can lead to liver, kidney, lung, neurological and reproductive system damage, among other problems. In its production, PVC releases dioxin, phthalates, vinyl chloride, ethylene, dichloride, lead, cadmium and other toxic chemicals.
Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, called PFASs for short, are persistent in the environment and our bodies. Utilized for their highly stain and water repellent qualities, PFASs are found in nonstick camping cookware, outdoor clothing, and tents, making them easy to clean and use in the rain. Scientists link PFASs to poorer immune system functioning, cancer, developmental problems and disruption of endocrine activity in studies of animals and humans. More studies of PFASs must be conducted to determine the range of negative health effects they may have on the human body. For now, enough is known to exercise caution. At Made Safe, we say “better off without it” until the chemical and chemistry is proven safe.
Flame retardants are another group of toxic chemicals found in camping tents. The government mandates these chemicals be used in tents to meet flammability standards set in the 1970s. A study from Duke University found that research participants who handled and spent time inside tents experienced dermal and inhalation exposure to flame retardant chemicals. Such exposure is linked to cancer, negative effects on the immune, neurological and reproductive systems, and developmental disorders.
Antimicrobial chemicals, like triclosan, are found in hand sanitizers, soaps, deodorant and clothes with antimicrobial finishes. Though it may be tempting to pack a convenient bottle of hand sanitizer for your camping trip, it may be safer to revise your packing list and exclude it. Triclosan is an endocrine-disrupting chemical linked to breast cancer, is highly toxic to aquatic life, and is persistent in the environment. Choose to bring plain soap to clean instead – even the FDA claims it works just as well.
Pesticides, in the form of bug repellent chemicals, are another sneaky family of chemicals that may lurk in outdoor clothing. Learn more about chemicals of concern in insect repellent here. Ditch any bug repellent-coated clothes while enjoying the outdoors and opt instead to repel insects naturally.
Tips for Safer Outdoor Gear
- Ask manufacturers whether their products contain PFASs, since these chemicals likely won’t show up on any labels.
- If you don’t need something truly “waterproof,” look for coats, hats, boots and tents labeled “water resistant.” They’re less likely to be treated with PFASs.
- Avoid plastic items like plates, forks or cups when paper or stainless steel will do. Plastic contains phthalates and other chemicals that can leach into food and water and do not break down in the environment.
- Look for 100% natural rubber rain gear instead of synthetic options.
- Replace nonstick camping cookware with cast-iron or ceramic alternatives.
- Wash your hands after setting up your tent and use ventilation systems in the tent to allow greater airflow.
- Avoid microbial wash, sanitizer and chemicals. Opt for natural washes and set up a clothesline in the sun so nature can naturally disinfect and deodorize whatever gets wet or dirty.