Embalmed in Your RV: Formaldehyde Poisons Vacationers

Consumer groups say toxic fumes are a "dirty, little secret" in the RV industry.

February 9, 2009, 10:06 PM

June 4, 2007 — -- 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.

While there are no tests for formaldehyde poisoning, Motes' doctor told him it was "highly suspected." When he attempted to return his RV, the dealership refused to acknowledge the problem, according to Motes.

"They are stringing us along," said Motes, who is still paying off a 10-year loan at $300 a month. "I am not a happy camper."

His dealer, Emerald Coast RV in Robertsdale, Ala., did not return calls made by ABC News.

About 8 million Americans drive RVs, and the industry is thriving. Manufacturers shipped 390,500 campers in 2005, the best year in the last 30, according to the Recreation Vehicle Association. This year, sales topped 127,900 by April.

"Good RV manufacturers limit the use of formaldehyde in their products," said Michelle McClanahan, a spokeswoman for the Washington-based RV Consumer Group.

But the Sierra Club said the use of tainted particle board was more widespread. The group tested 16 different brands of campers and found formaldehyde "across the board."

"The industry tends to look the other way because these types of trailers are not built for extended stays," said Connie Gallant, president of the RV Consumer Group, in a letter obtained by ABC News. "A good portion of consumers who purchase an RV do so with the intent of either full-time living or spending winter months living in the RV."

The Sierra Club has set up a Web site for complaints and, so far, about a dozen RV owners have posted stories about lung surgery, respiratory distress and chronic fatigue.

One mother rushed her baby to the emergency room with a phantom rash. After testing her RV at the suggestion of the dealer, formaldehyde levels registered at .75. Her dealer has agreed to give her money back, but only if she signs a health release.

"The manufacturer is basically holding us hostage," wrote the mother. "We cannot sell this trailer because it is unsafe. So [it] is sitting empty at our campground with the new season starting without us."

Kevin Broom, director of media relations for the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association, told ABC News, "We are aware of the issue and I can't really say a whole lot more pending litigation."

Broom is referring to a class action suit filed against FEMA trailer manufacturers that is gaining momentum. Several Congress members, including Rep. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, have called for an investigation.

"It's interesting to note how the RV industry seems to be downplaying the findings," said consumer advocate Gallant. "We are not surprised by such reaction."

The Sierra Club has also received complaints from those who bought some of the 47,000 unused FEMA trailers that are being auctioned off by the government.

Robert Richardson of Birmingham, Ala., bought his used Gulf Stream Cavalier at a government auction for $4,600. The 60-year-old disabled Vietnam veteran didn't initially associate his sinus and bronchial problems with the trailer.

"I felt like I was being poisoned or that I had something inside that was slowly killing me," said Richardson, who has hired a lawyer to try to get his money back. "The smell was so bad it made your eyes water. What aggravated me most is if you have a piece of property with a chemical like that, you're supposed to tell the buyer."

FEMA has instructed Katrina victims to ventilate their trailers, but there have been no warnings about formaldehyde posted on the Government Services Agency Web site that advertises trailers sold to the general public.

"I don't know how they can auction off these trailers," said Jerry Parker of the New York law firm Parker, Waichman and Alonso, which is representing 1,800 litigants in a class action suit. "It's like selling a house that you know has radon gas or termites. They are homes, and they require full disclosure."

"Everyone was asleep at the switch," said Parker. "They wanted to save a few dollars and make some extra money."

While formaldehyde is highly toxic, the fumes do subside, according to Ball State's Godish, who "felt like the Maytag repairman" after the lawsuits of the 1980s were resolved and calls for his expertise stopped.

But today with globalization, manufacturers have once again begun to import cheaper materials from South Asia and China, said Godish. The formaldehyde out-gassing is also exacerbated by mold and humidity, classic problems in cheaply constructed RVs, he said.

Though Godish believes most RVs today are safe, he cautions that in the mobile home and RV industry, "quality control has never been a major priority."

"The manufacturers know the people who buy RVs: The first summer they use it for six weeks; the second summer for two weeks; the fourth summer it's sitting in the yard and the fifth summer it's up for sale," he said.

"The chances are very high that they slipped it by the health authorities," said Godish. "Nobody thinks a $50,000 or $100,000 RV can make them sick, but it does happen."

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