By Tony Barthel
Could toxic chemicals in your RV be making you sick? In a recent discussion on RV Travel’s RV Horror Stories Facebook Group, a question was posed by member Toni Molloy to see if people had experienced health issues after buying a new RV. Quite a few had (at the time of writing this, there are 231 comments on the post).
One of the respondents, Jamie Fox, wrote, “Yes. The formaldehyde smell in my trailer is so bad that I have not been able to stay in it for very long. I bought it brand new, ordered it from the factory. Was told that the smell will dissipate. It never did.”
Lynnea Koehler chimed in and added, “I had constant headaches when we bought our first camper.” However, she indicated that they had since upgraded to a new travel trailer which offered none of the issues.
So what’s making some RVers sick?
One potential cause is formaldehyde, a chemical used in the embalming of human beings. Chemicals used in the manufacture of any product, including RVs and furniture, can “off-gas.”
OSHA regulations say that formaldehyde is “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen,” and is sometimes associated with nasal and sinus cancer.
“It’s a nasty gas and is immediately recognizable,” said air quality expert Thad Godish, a professor of environmental management at Indiana’s Ball State University. He testified in the consumer lawsuits of the 1980s.
In fact, this might bring to mind stories about people getting sick who were living in trailers provided as temporary housing by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
In 2006, the Sierra Club began receiving health complaints from hundreds of displaced Hurricane Katrina victims who were living in RVs provided by FEMA.
When the environmental group began testing the air quality, it found 83 percent of the trailers tested had formaldehyde levels up to three times higher than the EPA limit.
What is formaldehyde doing in your RV?
It is actually a component in some glues including those that may be used to hold wall boards together, or in some flooring products and other components that may be used in RV manufacture. While the use of the chemical has definitely been reduced in recent years, small spaces such as RVs can exacerbate the issues for some owners.
“I have an immune deficiency and when we were looking for our new RV I couldn’t even walk in some because of the horrible off-gassing ‘new’ smell. We found a brand that finally worked. I had the top fan covers installed so we can keep air circulating and a dehumidifier for winter. So far so good,” wrote Nicki Garland. She continued, “We closed it up and turned the heat on high for several days and then aired it out. We did that a few times. It helps to off-gas faster. We leave the roof vents open a lot too. We have the cover over them. It’s been a year-and-a-half and I have no issues. My daughter got the same brand and hers has no smells either. I also have chemical sensitivity so I really searched the different brands.”
This was something I ran into when selling RVs and noticed that some people were more affected by odors in some new RVs than others.
“I looked at new ones but could not even stay in them for five minutes,” wrote Linda Sue Lewis.
But it’s not always chemicals used in the manufacturing and, to be fair, many RV manufacturers are carefully taking chemicals out of the manufacturing process that have been proven harmful to humans.
What about mold?
One respondent in the thread reported that she had a very bad reaction in her RV and found that mold had formed in the rig.
Water damage is a persistent problem with RVs and, to be fair, many, many RV owners are not diligent about maintaining the seals on their RVs as directed by the manufacturers. Many RV manufacturers recommend inspecting the seals on the roof and walls of an RV at least every three months but few RV owners do this.
RVs have to accommodate driving down the road at freeway speeds. This is the equivalent of driving your house through a hurricane during an earthquake. So the flexible seals can break down from movement or environment and need to be maintained.
Without proper maintenance, water will seep in and can form mold, which, of course, is another health hazard.
What should you do?
The biggest thing you can prevent is mold. By inspecting the seals regularly on your RV and mitigating any that have started to wear or become cracked, you can help minimize water intrusion and the possibility of mold. It will also do wonders for the resale value when it comes trade-up time.
According to the respondents in the thread on Facebook, some RVs simply have higher concentrations of a chemical smell. If you’re shopping for a new RV perhaps choose a hot day and see if the smells bother you.
Many had also indicated that the way they mitigated the smell was to heat the RV up and then clear the air inside it with high-performance fans. This is why I’m such an advocate of fans in RVs.
John Brown wrote, “Buy plants: mother-in-law’s tongue [snake plant] and Golden Pothos. They absorb VOCs [volatile organic compounds] out of the air, including formaldehyde. NASA tested a bunch of plants some years ago and these were the top two at filtering the air of noxious chemicals.”
Another option that may help some RVers is a high-quality indoor air purifier. These could help mitigate environmental toxins for some who have sensitivities to them.
Unfortunately, there is presently no industry-wide standard for VOCs or formaldehyde use specifically in RVs. While legislation and industry guidelines are moving forward they still aren’t as strict as some would like to see.
For those who are truly concerned, there are indoor air quality testing tools available, including these on Amazon which have fairly good ratings.