When Marvin Motes bought his Keystone Cougar RV in March 2006, he envisioned a lifetime of healthy vacations exploring the natural beauty of America. What he didn't imagine was that his $29,000 camper would poison him.
After returning from a trip through the cool mountains of Tennessee to his home in steamy Vancleave, Miss., the 57-year-old and his wife began to suffer strange symptoms: burning sensations in their eyes, splitting headaches and even nosebleeds.
"I was real raspy, like a torch had gone down my throat," said Motes, a Navy quality control inspector who noticed strong fumes in his RV when the weather heated up. "If we'd been living in it, we'd probably be dead."
Motes and his wife had been exposed to formaldehyde, a toxic chemical most often used for embalming. It is also commonly used as a glue in building materials, like particle board, and can "out-gas," or leak into the air, under hot, humid conditions.
A known carcinogen, formaldehyde can cause an array of upper respiratory symptoms, and trigger asthma and breathing problems, particularly in the elderly and young children.
As a record number of Americans hit the road in their campers this summer, they could face similar health risks, according to the Sierra Club, which has forged a national public awareness campaign.
It says the RV industry, long known for its lax construction practices, is once again using cheaper, formaldehyde-based materials — a practice that was outlawed in the United States more than 20 years ago.
"It's a dirty, little secret in the RV organizations," said Becky Gillette, a volunteer with the Mississippi Sierra Club. "They have known for years it was a problem, yet chose to ignore it. Millions of retiring baby boomers in campers don't have a clue why they are getting sick."
Since 1985, the federal government has set standards for the amount of formaldehyde that can leak from building materials in mobile homes, but it does not regulate travel trailers.
The Occupational Safety and Health Organization limits exposure in the workplace, up to .75 parts per million for an eight-hour day, but the Environmental Protection Agency says that at air levels of .10 or above, "acute health effects can occur."
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.
Lawsuits, new regulations and the advent of safer home building materials halted the use of formaldehyde by the early 1990s, and RV manufacturers voluntarily complied, he said.
But in 2006, the Sierra Club began receiving health complaints from hundreds of displaced Hurricane Katrina victims who were living in cheaply constructed RVs provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
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.
Reading that news, Motes contacted the Sierra Club, which provided him with two test kits. Instructed to close up and "bake off" his trailer with super heaters, then ventilate it for three days and retest, Motes discovered formaldehyde levels of .42 and .37.