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Can your burning eyes, coughing or worse be blamed on the RV supply chain crisis?

By Scott Linden

As if we didn’t have enough to worry about, the COVID crisis may be endangering RVers even if we’re vaccinated, boosted, socially-distanced and masked up. Despite government and industry efforts to minimize it, a hidden poison lurks in some travel trailers, fifth-wheels, campers and motorhomes. Pandemic-related supply chain problems and questionable regulatory requirements could allow more of this invisible substance to sneak into your rig. Scarier still? While the RV industry follows every federal and state standard, some of those governmental guidelines may be the culprits.

Merry freakin’ Christmas, huh?

Formaldehyde is used in everything from laminated wood products and fabric treatments to embalming. But could COVID-fueled supply chain shortages force RV manufacturers to find something – anything – to finish building their vehicles? After all, only then can they roll those rigs out of the factory, on to dealer sales lots, and ultimately to a buyer.

RV builders are doing their part

Many RV manufacturers are justly proud of their efforts to reduce or eliminate toxins in their rigs, some setting higher standards than required by the few laws protecting RVers from toxic indoor air. So a first step would be seeking them out when shopping for a new rig. We may have to dig deep, as most builders don’t address formaldehyde content in their promotional materials. And as supply pipelines become pinched, policies and suppliers could be changed in response to the market’s unquenchable thirst for new RVs, so what’s in promotional or technical literature may be outdated when you take delivery on your new rig. A builder that typically used minimal amounts of formaldehyde could be forced to use components that may meet government guidelines, yet have more than previous units built pre-pandemic.

It’s nasty stuff

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency states that formaldehyde is causally associated with nasopharyngeal cancer and leukemia. Health-compromised individuals from smokers to asthma sufferers are at higher risk, but anyone can be affected, with symptoms including burning eyes, breathing problems, and headaches. Even pets can be adversely affected.

In a Wild West environment where anything goes to meet market demand, RV builders are sometimes sourcing critical components anywhere they can find them. That may include new-to-them suppliers, foreign or domestic. When regular vendors are short-handed, a row of motorhomes awaiting cabinets before delivery could see them coming from whomever has a truckload to sell. Manufacturers are at the mercy of raw material suppliers who do their own testing and certification. Repair and replacement parts are also at risk, coming in small quantities to a dealer service center or independent shop from smaller parts suppliers.

The real suspect? Weak regulation

And while various states and the federal government may have regulations on types and amounts of toxins, offshore suppliers likely don’t see near the scrutiny. Remember the Lumber Liquidators Chinese-sourced laminated flooring controversy? Some samples exceeded California’s air quality limits by 300%. Most of the wood used in RVs comes from Indonesia, where regulatory oversight is questionable, at best. Luckily, U.S. RV manufacturers meet federal and more stringent California guidelines and certify such on the rig. But – and it’s a big but – even those are suspect.

Nobody knows, nobody regulates

It’s up to us. Federal agencies don’t test or regulate RV indoor air quality, nor is there an industry-wide standard for formaldehyde use in RVs beyond the federal Toxic Substances Control Act, governing formaldehyde content in composite wood products. California has one regulation as well, but as you read on you’ll see how some scientists feel about that.

Borderline at best

It’s time to get educated about the levels of toxins permitted by regulators. And not just in flooring, cabinets, doors, insulation and walls. Industry group Cotton, Inc. notes there are no legal limits on formaldehyde in textiles (think carpet, curtains, mattress covers). One chilling example:

“A weight of evidence-based formaldehyde exposure limit of 0.1 ppm (parts per million) is recommended as an indoor air level for all individuals for odor detection and sensory irritation,” according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information. Compare that figure to allowable amounts in commonly-used building products: particleboard = 0.09 ppm, medium-density fiberboard, 0.11 ppm, and “thin MDF” = 0.13 ppm. (Source: National Center for Biotechnology Information)  And that’s just for materials that are, in large part, being tested voluntarily by reliable domestic manufacturers in a stable economy with no supply-chain issues.

Does certification work?

Do materials certified “TSCA Title VI compliant” ensure your safety? Maybe, maybe not. The amount of formaldehyde the Environmental Protection Agency allows is significantly higher than the amount that may cause health problems. Are the so-called environmentally-aware “green” ratings helpful? Hardly. Even Consumer Reports sounds the alarm bell on industry-standard third-party certifiers, one of which allows a formaldehyde limit “almost 10 times as high as what we think it should be.”

What to do

So what can RVers do to stay safe? Ask your dealer and manufacturer about toxin levels and how they measure them. Know the sources of products used in your RV. Ensure they are all (at the minimum) California’s CARB and federal U.S. TSCA Title VI compliant. “Green” certification might help. Buy a home air quality tester. And once you take delivery, according to Consumer Reports:

  1. Set indoor temperature and humidity levels to the lowest comfortable levels. Higher temperatures and humidity levels increase off-gassing.
  2. Don’t smoke in your RV.
  3. Know that most air purifiers won’t lower formaldehyde levels, nor will putting a rug over your floor.
  4. Open your windows whenever possible.

Perhaps “let the breather beware” should be the new COVID-inspired slogan when it comes to shopping for an RV.

Copyrighted material 2021 all rights reserved.

##RVT1031

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Keira B
7 months ago

Your “chilling example” says that the recommended exposure to formaldehyde is 0.1 ppm. Then you go on to give the ppm in a variety of materials. It seems chilling because the ppm in those materials is above the recommended level. Inside of a board made of thin MDF, for example is 0.13 ppm. However, you are not inside that thin MDF board, you are just in an RV partially made of that material. The formaldehyde outgasses from that board into the air in the RV, but would never be anywhere near 0.13 ppm even right at the surface of the board. Even if the RV were perfectly air tight, the concentration of formaldehyde would never be 0.13 ppm in the RV, or even 0.01 ppm. We borrowed a formaldehyde detector and measured the air inside of 6 new travel trailers on a hot day last summer. We measured formaldehyde concentrations at 0.001 ppm to 0.0004.

Keira B
7 months ago

One thing to remember is that some people are sensitive to indoor air pollution, including formaldehyde, but most are not sensitive to it.

Steve Hericks
7 months ago

Straight up fear-mongering. This is simply stirring up a problem that was solved decades ago with no new evidence or information.

I was the plant engineer for Safari Motor Coaches 1993-1997 and even then, we worked rigorously to find and use products without formaldehyde. We had little problem finding material to build formaldehyde-free coaches back then. IMHO (although I can’t back it up factually), most other manufacturers did as much as we did. I’ feel pretty confident in saying the industry has been formaldehyde-free or reduced to insignificance for decades. But even the amateur ‘media’ need to stir up fear in order to get the gullible to read their articles.

The ‘regulation’ this article seeks, even if it were true that formaldehyde exists, would only need to be directed at the material manufacturers. No RV manufacturer actually uses formaldehyde for anything. The material manufacturers have been under regulatory assault for both real and perceived threats for 40 years or more

KellyR
7 months ago
Reply to  Steve Hericks

Without going thru my background in building construction, and having gone thru this formaldehyde “thing” … Steve has it right.

Pamela Kissinger
7 months ago

This is a great article. Rv Travel should start a petition. I would sign and I am sure many, many others would too!
Pammyjill13

Vincee
7 months ago

I find we have enough government regulations and this article screams for more. Sorry to disappoint, but Uncle Sam cannot put the bite back into the apple.

Silas Longshot
7 months ago

This was for sure an issue with our last ‘sticks & staples wrapped in cola cans’ type trailer and there was no supply line issues back in 2008. Walking into that rig when it was new & fresh on a hot day would scorch your eyes & nose with the fumes, so we would leave all roof vents open and the windows cracked open for months to get it dispersed. Our new RV is ‘azdell’ on inside & out so there was very little ‘new RV smell’ in it.

Rick K
7 months ago

Besides, if you’re coughing it’s just COVID. 🤣

Bob Garbe
7 months ago

Another internet google expert, oh great. Wonderful sensationalized inaccurate report. As a Board Certified Industrial Hygienist with over 45 years experience, I cringe when I see this stuff apparently designed to attract attention and using un credentialed sources to whip it up. I will leave it at that and see if you will leave this comment. Formaldehyde dissipates rapidly, if it is present at all, and the EPA standard is based on discomfort not health. Nuff said.

James Starling
7 months ago
Reply to  Bob Garbe

“mould and odours”? Indoor graphics didn’t come from around here!

Pacifica
7 months ago

This is very old news in regards to outgassing of formaldehyde containing laminate products. Your focus on “alarmist” style journalism is in itself alarming. Save people’s attention for something truly important.

Bob Garbe
7 months ago
Reply to  Pacifica

Yep.

Pamela Kissinger
7 months ago
Reply to  Pacifica

What is more important than our health?

Crowman
7 months ago

Most of those chemicals gas off after a while just air it out.

Bob Garbe
7 months ago
Reply to  Crowman

Yep

Bob M
7 months ago

I’m not sure the RV industry follows every federal and state standard. When you read some of the issues rv owners have on forums and the way they pound out the large numbers of RV’s it makes you wonder.

Marvin Moolenaar
7 months ago

Will toxin levels decrease naturally over time? 🤔

Bob Garbe
7 months ago

Yes, very rapidly.

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