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What You Need to Know About the Toxic Chemicals in Your RV

I have had a great deal of experience both buying and selling RVs and think people should understand the mechanics of doing these things.

Some RVs hold chemicals within their walls that can be extremely dangerous.

Some RVs hold chemicals within their walls that can be extremely dangerous.

What Are the Dangers of Living in a RV?

People tend to assume that when they purchase a new recreational vehicle it will be in top condition, and they’ll be able to start using it immediately for their vacations. This is a “best case” scenario but is rarely the case.

Unlike automobiles, RVs are made up of individual systems, each of which contributes to the whole but function separately. There are many of them, and at any given time, one or more can create problems for new owners.

I know of one case where someone purchased a very expensive luxury coach. On his first trip with it, a number of the frameless windows fell out! In another case, there was a problem with the construction of the extra-large slide room that caused it to tilt outwards when in the open position creating the danger that it might literally fall right out of the coach!

For this reason, it is very important for people to test every single system in a coach before purchasing it because this is the main way they can spot issues that might become problematic, expensive or even dangerous.

While the two issues I mentioned above may seem horrible, there is another that is even worse because it has the potential of creating serious health problems and endangering lives.

Dangerous Chemicals

A reader recently wrote to tell me about a situation that he and his wife endured after purchasing their new RV.

They took it on a vacation and, as a result, ended up becoming horribly ill and going to the emergency room three times, twice during their vacation and once again after they got back home.

Eventually they discovered that their health problems had been caused by exposure to formaldehyde and ethyl alcohol which were both present in their new unit.

These chemicals can be toxic to human beings, and both are used in the manufacturing of certain materials that are in campers, travel trailers and motor homes.


The most dangerous chemical found in recreational vehicles is formaldehyde.

This product is used most often in embalming and also as glue in building materials which can leak toxic gasses into the air in hot, humid weather and cause splitting headaches, upper respiratory problems, nosebleeds and even asthma.

In worst-case scenarios, this carcinogen can cause death.

In a health advisory put out by ABC News the public has been told that there has been an upsurge in these types of RV traveler problems because manufacturers are returning to the previously banned practice of using cheaper materials that allow Formaldehyde to leak into recreational vehicles.

This is should not be the case since prices for recreational vehicles are at an all time high. As such, manufacturers should not need to cut corners, especially when doing so can be dangerous for the people who buy their products.

Since most RVs have some level of formaldehyde in them, travelers who are using products such as hand sanitizers and mouthwash may find that the negative effects of the alcohol in those products become exacerbated.

This will significantly increase their chances of developing serious health problems.

Ethyl Alcohol

Another toxic chemical found in RVs is a colorless liquid called ethyl alcohol (ethanol).

Also known as alcohol, it is one of the main ingredients in wine, beer and liquor. When used in alcoholic drinks that are casually consumed, it is not generally harmful, but if you ingest it straight, it is so toxic that it can kill you.

Long term use of alcoholic drinks is known to cause many health problems aside from alcoholism such as cancer, nervous system damage, heart disease and psychiatric problems.

It can also be lethal if it reaches a concentration above 460 mg per 100 mg of blood. If you want more details about its history and dangers, you can find them here.

Beyond being used in various types of beverages, ethanol can be used, among other things, as

  • engine fuel,
  • a psychoactive drug and
  • a component of skin care products.

Fuel Use

RVs that have engines built prior to 2003 were not made to be used with ethanol.

In engines built after that date, alcohol still is a problem because it is incompatible with rubber and certain plastics and therefore can damage them.

This means that if you are using ethanol as a fuel, you’re going to be facing alcohol related repairs. Always read your manufacturer’s engine maintenance directions before you decide to use this product.

If you don’t, you may find that their warranties will not cover these types of issues.

Drug Use

As a drug it can cause mood changes and create feelings of euphoria, which makes it very popular among recreational drug users. However ingesting or inhaling it can be extremely dangerous.

Skin Care Use

When used as a component of skin care products (which is common) it can cause itching, rashes and similar problems, which is where ethyl alcohol becomes a more serious issue when used in recreational vehicles that have an abundance of formaldehyde present.

Ingesting or inhaling too much of either chemical can and will cause serious health problems, so RV owners need to be careful about dealing with either or both of these chemicals.

For example, a person who has had too much to drink already has a chance for a toxic reaction and can increase it significantly if he is also inside of a travel trailer that has a lot of formaldehyde lurking in its walls.

The Facts

Increasing numbers of RVers are getting sick but are not aware of the reasons for their illnesses and thus do not know the source of their health problems.

Unfortunately, the Federal government does not regulate the amount of formaldehyde that can leak from building materials into travel trailers, which is where most of these problems occur.

Proof of this is that in the cheaply made trailers provided to Hurricane Katrina survivors it was found that 83% of the trailers given to them that were tested had formaldehyde levels that were three times higher than the EPA levels!

How to Avoid Problems

There are a number of things recreational vehicle consumers can do to avoid having problems with formaldehyde when purchasing a unit, especially if it is a travel trailer.

The first step is to buy from a manufacturer that is known to produce well built, safe vehicles. Off brands or very cheap units may seem like good deals, but they likely are not safe to own.

When shopping you can do these things:

  • Formaldehyde has a distinct odor, so if you smell something that doesn’t seem “right”, don’t buy the coach.
  • If you enter an RV, especially if it has been closed up, and your eyes and nose begin to burn, walk away.
  • If a coach’s windows and doors are open, ask the seller to shut them and turn off fans and air conditioners. Wait about ten minutes and then go back into the coach. If your nose tells you there’s a problem or you begin to show the above mentioned symptoms, forget making the purchase.
RV owners ought to be able to enjoy their travel units without worrying about being exposed to toxic chemicals..

RV owners ought to be able to enjoy their travel units without worrying about being exposed to toxic chemicals..

What to Do If You Already Own an RV

If you have already bought an RV, have used it and have become ill, you should stay away from it and contact the EPA or Sierra Club for guidance. They will help you to find a reliable test kit that will help you to determine the level of formaldehyde in your RV.

In the meantime, to get rid of the formaldehyde excess in an RV follow these guidelines. (You can learn more details about this eliminating formaldehyde from your RV by reading this article.)

  1. Empty your coach completely.
  2. Set furniture pillows up on their sides.
  3. Open all drawers and doors.
  4. Close all windows and entry doors.
  5. Close and cover all vents,
  6. Turn the heat on high, and leave it running at that level for a day.
  7. Open everything up…doors, windows, vents, etc.
  8. Turn on the fans, and let the coach air out for several hours.

Do this as often as necessary. In essence, you're heating up the gases and then blowing them out of the coach.

In addition, you should be very careful when using any product or fuel that contains ethanol. For example, when changing the oil in a generator, wear a mask and protective gloves.

Furthermore, when traveling, try to use products that do not have alcohol in them so that you can reduce your chances of developing respiratory illnesses and skin problems.

What Are the Risks?

Not all travel units have these issues, so shopping carefully by doing the things noted above will likely help you to avoid problems.

Your risks will be lower if you buy good quality recreational vehicles that were manufactured prior to 1999 because those units were more well constructed, were made from better materials and thus were less likely to leak gasses.

Pay attention to your body when shopping. If being in a coach makes you uncomfortable in any way, do not purchase it.

If you think there is a problem, buy a test kit or find one with the help of the Sierra Club and check your coach before traveling in it.

(Amazon sells this type of kit, but after reading their reviews, I feel they are not made well enough to be user friendly or easy for people to use.)

Better yet, demand that the seller prove to you that your unit does not have formaldehyde problems by running a test for you!

Better Safe Than Sorry

The Sierra Club has stated that there have been increasing numbers of complaints from RV Owners about exposure to formaldehyde and ethanol. If you need information or help, you should contact them. If you search their site you'll find a number of articles such as the one called Toxic Trailers which provides some frightening information about Formaldehyde in trailers.

Unfortunately, the recreational vehicle industry lobby is strong, and has kept the government from properly regulating their manufacturing methods.

If you don’t want to be dealing with dangerous chemicals that may be lurking in your RV, contact your federal officials and let them know that you want them to do whatever is necessary to regulate the manufacture of recreational vehicles.

There are now 9 million of us who own RVs. We should use our clout to demand better government oversight of the recreational vehicle industry.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

Questions & Answers

Question: Is my camper making me sick?

Answer: It's possible. It could also be possible that you have parked it near plants and trees you may be allergic to or that it has a mold or mildew problem. It is hard to tell without seeing where it is located and knowing what your symptoms are. It would be a good idea to get tested for allergies and also do a close check of your coach to see if there is any type of water damage.

Question: Does a formaldehyde odor in an RV dissipate after time?

Answer: I think it depends on how much was used, but even with that it can take quite a long time to dissipate...time people will not be able to safely use their RVs. You can smell it most of the time when you enter a coach, and it will burn your eyes and nose. Personally, I would never buy an RV that has this issue because it just is not good for one's health.

Question: Hi, I have mild seasonal allergies but nothing severe. My husband just bought an old RV (mid-nineties I believe) and we tried it out this weekend and I’m having the most severe allergy attack I’ve ever had. My sinuses are completely blocked and actually throbbing, with itchy eyes throat and even the roof of my mouth itches. I feel like there must be something in there that I’m severely allergic to. Where should we start?

Answer: Sounds like you have water damage somewhere that has created a bad mildew or mold problem. Stay out of the coach until you can have a professional come and inspect it because if this is a mold problem, it could be life-threatening. I doubt this would be from chemicals in such an old coach, but if you find it is not what I suspect, you may have some sort of toxic chemicals buried in your walls.

© 2018 Sondra Rochelle