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

Updated on February 17, 2019
TIMETRAVELER2 profile image

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

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 contribute 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 an endangering lives.

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

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.

Formaldehyde

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:

  1. Formaldehyde has a distinct odor, so if you smell something that doesn’t seem “right”, don’t buy the coach.
  2. If you enter an RV, especially if it has been closed up, and your eyes and nose begin to burn, walk away.
  3. 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.. | Source

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: heat up the gases and then blow 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.

If you own an RV, have you ever had a problem with exposure to Formaldehyde or Ethyl Alcohol?

See results

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

  • Does a formaldehyde odor in an RV dissipate after time?

    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.

  • 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?

    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.

  • Is my camper making me sick?

    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.

© 2018 Sondra Rochelle

Comments

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  • TIMETRAVELER2 profile imageAUTHOR

    Sondra Rochelle 

    2 months ago from USA

    Thanks for the info.

  • profile image

    Lewis Wiles 

    2 months ago

    I have struggled with chemical sensitivities for 15 years

    (at my office they have installed "special" ventilation for me so that I constantly get fresh air pumped in, this has helped tremendously)

    I have had many of the reactions reported here, but not from a camper.

    Just from "regular" building materials

    However, chipboard is the WORST - lots of formaldehyde

    while plywood is OK

    While shopping for a camper a couple of years ago, I thought that a used one would be the way to go

    Went in one about 15 years old, smelled very bad

    the smell was from chipboard that was wet from a small leak

    wet or new chipboard (also known as OSB) is very bad

    Doesn't matter how old it is - wet chipboard is toxic to anyone with chemical sensitivity

    When I mentioned the wet chip board the sales guy said flatly

    "try a Jayco"

    "Jaycos use plywood instead of OSB"

    I ended up buying a new hail damaged Jayco TT for not very much

    I have had no problems in it, even when it was new

    Stay away from any model that uses OSB in the wall structure

    looking online, it appears that the Lance models do not use OSB in their construction either

    Hope this helps, its not the brand that matters, its the lack of OSB that will save you

    Obviously, no leaks will help also since most people with chemical sensitivities have mold allergies also

    While checking out a used one in Bourbon, MO

  • profile image

    tinamiller1 

    2 months ago

    I have owned several RV’s and only used for vacation. I have Rosacea going on 20 years now. PA home about 3000 square feet. I eat what I want and drink Vodka once in a while. No real problems. Use Metro gel when needed. Camping 7-11 days, same diet and drink routine, massive flare-ups. Lots of Metro gel. Thought just allergies of where I was camping in NC or PA. Started a Ketogenic diet in May of 2018 and no issues with skin. Actually, Rosacea started clearing up less Metro gel. Moved to NC full-time 43’ trailer over Labor Day 2018 so home in PA could be sold quickly. So far, so good. By January 2019, loss of hair on sides of the head and in back. The dermatologist did lab work all was fine. Said temporary Alopecia. Maybe the stress of the move and living in a camper. June 2019 and massive Rosacea flare-ups. Metro gel does not solve the issue. Go through a series of testing from the water to the air. Could there be mold in Air condition? Check everything and nothing seems to be an answer. Google and read a lot. Maybe the histamine issue. Research the Keto diet and lots of avocado and spinach increase histamine. Vodka increase histamine. Using Erythritol in baking and anything calling for sugar. Cut out these items and buy D-Hist to increase the DAO. Maybe leaky gut. This routine has gone on for over a month and still wake up with itchy skin all over and Rosacea is not under control. Dermatologist only says possible severe allergies, but allergies to what? Tried over the counter antihistamine but that only dried my eyes out so much the lids and under eyes are flakey. Prescription makes it worse. Tried zinc soap. Forget that. What is causing this reaction? Told my husband something is wrong with this RV. This was not happening when living in the PA home. I think there is something to this RV article. It might be more than just toxins it might have to do with mites. I have researched full time living in an RV and things that happen when these RV’s are not made to a home’s specifications. They make them super light to travel down the road easily. We happen to live in a 43’ destination trailer that is more like a park model and not meant to be moved. I am now trying tea tree oil to see if my theory of an increase of mites might be the cause. They are called dermodex mites. My husband has noticed an increase of itchiness and he has super oily skin. Also, break out in strange bumps on the back of his legs. Switched all laundry cleaning products to allergen-free and even got some mite additive. We wash once a week as it is and switched from the onsite laundry since the lake here and the water have got bad stuff. TESI is our water supplier and they have not provided a water toxicity report since 2018 and the 2018 report was Franklin County results. TESI purchases water from them and the lake board found TESI has been paying EPA the fines for the bad water but still will not supply the results. Therefore, we have not washed our clothing or bedding here for going on 7 months. We go into town and use the Franklin County water which has fantastic water quality. I believe the way RV’s are set up contributes to an increase in so many environmental toxins and has increased the dermodex mites. We shall see if this tee tree oil has any impact on my issues and will post an update in a few weeks if it does. Maybe this will help others that experience issues when camping part-time or are full-time RV’ers. Hoping my home is done by Thanksgiving so maybe I can get back to normal.

  • TIMETRAVELER2 profile imageAUTHOR

    Sondra Rochelle 

    4 months ago from USA

    I am so sorry to hear of this situation. Unfortunately, RV manufacturers have a very strong political lobby and therefore have very few guidelines that must be followed, which is why you'll get no support from them. A lawyer won't help either because RV lemon laws are almost nonexistent. Hopefully people will read your comment here and boycott those manufacturers who sold you these vehicles. In the meantime, I suggest you get rid of them and move back into a house or apartment. You need to stay away from RVs to see if your health improves, and if you buy another, have it professionally tested before you buy. Wish I could do more, but this is my best advice. It sounds to me as though you actually have been poisoned due to too much exposure.

  • profile image

    Mckennamom 

    4 months ago

    2019 Forest River Sierra. We sold our home in April 2018 start our full-time RV journey here is our story.

    Alyse,

    I tried to be as accurate as possible with dates. In April of 2018 we sold our home in Merrimac MA to start our full RV journey. We had Forest River custom build our 2019 Sierra. We bought 2 RV's on the same day, 1 to live in during the summer months and 1 to camp in with the grandkids.

    * July 3, 2018 received new RV from Forest River Inc. Indiana days after coming off the assembly line.

    *October, 2018 sick with first respiratory problem. Started prednisone and antibiotics.

    *October 15, 2018 Closed up RV for the winter.

    *April 15, 2019 Reopened RV for new camping season. We were running the heat as it is cold in New England in April.

    * April18, 2019 Started having coughing attacks and began wheezing after going in my bedroom in the RV.

    *April 25, 2019 approx. saw P.C.P thought it was possibly allergies, started daily allergy maintenance. Coughing and wheezing worsening.

    *April 28, 2019 approx. started to notice eyes and nose burning and wheezing and coughing exacerbated at night time when in bed.

    * End of April beginning of May saw P.C.P multiple times told him we suspected chemical exposure possibly formaldehyde. Started on prednisone and antibiotics and albuterol.

    *May 5, 2019 1st visit to ER. Struggled to breathe for four hours, went to the ER at approx 1a.m. I was given a chest X-ray and multiple breathing treatments. All tests normal no underlying issues. I returned to the RV and fell asleep for 40 minutes. Bronchial spasms returned. Went outside and slept in the hammock, breathing returned to normal.

    *May 8, 2019 My daughter Mckenna came to spend the weekend for Mother's Day. She was hanging out with me in my bedroom when she began to notice her throat and eyes started to burn. Her eyes began to swell and her face started to look irritated.

    *May 9, 2019 McKenna woke up after sleeping with me in my room and her entire face was covered with a stinging rash and her eyes were swollen.

    * May 10 to May 16, 2019 my symptoms continued to worsen, sleep was impossible due to constant coughing and wheezing.

    * May 10, 2019 moved to another room in the RV that had far less carpeting and fabric. My father suggested that there could me formaldehyde in the RV as my Aunt had received a written notice from her mobile home manufacturer that the unit may contain formaldehyde a "known carcinogen" I believe that this is required in manufactured housing. After doing research on formaldehyde and RV's we closed off the room and started to heat at high temperature to force "gassing out". We also placed bowls of ammonium bicarbonate in the room which chemically reacts to help neutralize to formaldehyde. (See attached document). When the two react they give off an odor of rotten fish, which it did.

    *May 16, 2019 2nd visit to ER approx. 2 a.m. Bronchial spasms unable to breathe. Chest X-ray done, more breathing treatments. All tests normal. Returned to RV symptoms returned. Slept outside in chair on deck and breathing returned to normal.

    *From May 16, 2019 until June I continued to struggle to get well, my P.C.P prescribed a nebulizer machine I started staying out of the bedroom entirely. Symptoms worsened any time I was in the room for a short period. We continued heat treatments daily. We began heat treating the entire RV. Every day before work we would close it up and crank the heat, leaving it for 8-10 hours. Then when we returned home we would open all the windows and turn on all on the fans. We would only go back when it was time to sleep. We started preparing meals outdoors as to limit exposure time in the RV.

    *June 16, 2019 Performed 1st simple formaldehyde home test ( after "gassing out" for over seventy-two hours) Levels of formaldehyde still at high levels. Contacted Liz Harriman from the Toxic Use Reduction Institute (TURI, Lowell MA) Liz recommended we contact the Dept of Public Health, Enviromental Health Indoor Air program. ( there was nothing they could do because it was an RV)

    *June 17, 2019 approx. Performed 2nd formaldehyde test( Home Air Check, laboratory) We followed instructions and placed the tube and pump in my bedroom and the back room. I sealed the test tube and mailed it to the lab the next day. Per report the sample was acceptable.

    *June 26, 2019 Complete pulmonary function test done. Inflammation and congestion.

    * June 26, 2019 performed another home formaldehyde test. Showing lower level of .06 mg/m3

    * June 27, 2019 Home Air Check Results came back 56 ng/L or 45 ppb. Still ELEVATED.

    * Pulmonary Doctor (Dr. Kapogiannis) discussed issues with Doctor, started another inhaler. Though it was possible that it may be formaldehyde related, there are not tests for exposure only symptoms.

    *June 30, 2019 3rd ER visit. CT angiogram with contrast ordered. Results normal. Physician suggested something in the RV is causing you to have issues, you need to get out for a few weeks and see if you get better. Diagnosis, Reactive Airway Disease.

    *July 1, 2019 4th ER visit (Massachusetts General) Ran test for Legionella, histoplasmosis, and other strange diseases. All negative.

    Referred to a Mass General Pulmonology Clinic, and Cambridge Enviromental Health.

    *July 2, 2019 Allergist appointment. (Dr. Katz, Dartmouth, MA) tested for hyperactivity panel, eosinophils levels, complete CBC.

    Discussed issues with RV and was told that it seems I am having a reaction to something in the RV. Go somewhere else.

    I have since moved out of the Forest River Sierra completely (approx June 27 and into our other RV. 2019 Keystone Hideout. Tested formaldehyde level approx .01 mg/m3. Almost no formaldehyde.

    I have been unable to remain in either RV at this point and have set up a tent outside of our "Dream RV" where I am now slowly improving.

    This is a continuing issue for me. I have been diagnosed with Reactive Airway disease. I believe this is due to chemical sensitization, from high levels of formaldehyde. If the levels in our RV were still ELEVATED after 72+ hours of forced gassing. How high were they to begin with? There is currently no regulation on RV manufacturing. There are millions of Americans that are doing the same thing as us! Selling their homes and hitting the road as a full timers and "workampers". How can they continue to knowingly use products containing formaldehyde which is a known carcinogen. How can they continue this unconscionable behavior after being found liable in 2008 of the same practice. Forest River was one of the companies involved in the 2008 class action lawsuit for the FEMA/ Katrina victims. They became sick with respiratory issues after high levels of formaldehyde was found in the trailers supplied by Forest River and other companies.

    My health issues are ongoing, I have taken a leave of absence for my job. I have been sick for 3 months. Forest River denies that there is any formaldehyde issue. Before this happened, I was an avid fisherman and spent all my time outdoors. Now the heat and humidity make it impossible to breathe. I had no issues of chronic bronchitis, reactive airway disease, COPD, Emphysema. I was a healthy 53 y/o. woman. Now I am on the following.

    *nebulizer 6x a day

    *Albuterol

    *Fovent

    *Symbicort

    *Prednisone 4 course

    *antibiotics 3 or 4 course

    800mg Ibuprofen ( rib cartilage inflammation)

    Ipratropium bromide

    Trazadon for sleep.

    None these issues occurred before the RV and the only occur in the RV.

    People we have contacted.

    Todd Sorrell tsorrell@forestriverinc.com

    Judd Cripe JEcripe@orestriverinc.com

    Lisa Goodwin Lgoodwin@forestriverinc.com

    Ray Zenna ray@flaggrv.com ( left message on his voicemail

  • TIMETRAVELER2 profile imageAUTHOR

    Sondra Rochelle 

    4 months ago from USA

    Find one that is compatible with the materials in your RV. You may be using one that interacts with the toxins already there.

  • profile image

    Deborah Nickrand 

    4 months ago

    Sondra, which air cleaner would you recommend?

    We have a '83 Tioga, and sometimes, my allergies act up--- eyes burn, etc.

  • TIMETRAVELER2 profile imageAUTHOR

    Sondra Rochelle 

    9 months ago from USA

    I'm so sorry to hear about this. Your first step is to see a doctor to that you can deal with the health issues. This will tell you if the problem you are having is the result of toxic chemicals in your RV...which is likely the case. Most states have very poor RV lemon laws, so trying to be compensated for your injuries may be difficult, time consuming, expensive and may not amount to much. However, if you want to pursue this path, see a lawyer! You didn't say if the RV was purchased new or used, but that may make a difference for you. Good luck.

  • profile image

    Sheroni1 

    9 months ago

    We bought a RV about 3 months ago. Since the first day we use it, my eyes and face have swollen and got worse every day. I also have extreme headaches, shallow breathing and heart palpitations. My face, eyelids, under eyes all huge for about a week now. I also have swollen throat, bumps on my tongue, and swollen tongue. I suspect that formaldehyde and ethyl alcohol have caused this. Where do I go to get help? Also, is there anything we can do to have the maker of our coach pay for damages?

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