July 9, 2008

RV Makers to Give Testimony for Committee

By John Kline, Goshen News, Ind.

Jul. 9--Representatives of four Goshen-area RV manufacturers were to begin their testimony today before a U.S. House committee regarding concerns about elevated formaldehyde levels in their products.

The four companies -- including Forest River of Elkhart, Gulf Stream of Nappanee, Keystone of Goshen and Pilgrim of Middlebury -- first came under the radar of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government oversight committee in 2007.

A sampling of units sold to the Federal Emergency Management Agency following hurricanes Katrina and Rita tested positive for high levels of formaldehyde.

Described as a colorless, pungent-smelling chemical used widely in the manufacture of building materials and household products, formaldehyde has been linked to health problems including eye, nose and throat irritation, wheezing and coughing, fatigue, skin rash, severe allergic reactions and cancer, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Representatives of Keystone, Pilgrim and Gulf Stream Coach recently confirmed their intentions to comply with the Oversight Committee's requests to attend the hearing and provide testimony.

"Keystone is assisting the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in its inquiry into trailers used in the aftermath of the Gulf Coast hurricanes," a recent statement from the company said. "Keystone was not a government contractor, and did not sell any trailers to FEMA. Through vehicle registrations, Keystone can verify that FEMA purchased from dealers and others a small number of Keystone recreational vehicles that may have been used for temporary housing.

"Keystone looks forward to providing the committee with testimony and answering any questions it may have," the statement said.

David Hoefer, a partner with Pilgrim International, also indicated his company's willingness to move forward with the hearing.

"I think everybody is proactive on the situation, and wants to do everything it takes to do things correctly," Hoefer said. "I think the outcome is a fact-finding mission, and based on the CDC's results...obviously it's not detrimental. We're just there to develop and find guidelines."

Gulf Stream Chairman Jim Shea is keeping the same mindset.

"Gulf Stream is a small-town American manufacturer committed to manufacturing safe and quality products for its customers," Shea said. "Our family has built Gulf Stream's reputation over 25 years by serving its customers, and safety is a key component to our success. The Gulf Stream travel trailers sold to FEMA were no exception.

"In a time of national crisis, we engaged our resources and made additional investments, and our employees worked as hard as possible on a very tight schedule so that Hurricane Katrina victims could return to their family, friends, and neighborhoods to begin rebuilding their lives," he said.

A call to Forest River for comment was not returned.

As for the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association, the organization's president, Richard Coon, is also optimistic about the outcome of the hearings.

"After one of the largest, most disruptive natural disasters in U.S. history, travel trailer manufacturers stepped up to do their part and mobilized to produce temporary housing, effectively helping FEMA avoid using tents to house people who had lost their homes," Coon said. "We're very proud of our people and the contributions they've made."

The RVIA is the national trade association representing RV manufacturers and their component parts suppliers who together build more than 98 percent of all RVs produced in the United States today.

Formaldehyde tests

All in all, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducted formaldehyde tests on a total of 385 travel trailers, 82 park models and 79 mobile homes selected at random from Louisiana and Mississippi between Dec. 21 and Jan. 23.

According to the CDC's findings, fumes from the 519 trailer and mobile homes tested were on average about five times what people are exposed to in most modern homes, and, in some trailers, the levels were nearly 40 times customary exposure levels.

The problem appears to be the use of composite wood products, such as particleboard. According to a report issued by the CDC last Wednesday, this is among the main sources of the potentially harmful levels of formaldehyde being recorded in the government-issued travel trailers.

According to the U.S. EPA Web site, the most significant sources of formaldehyde in homes and RVs are likely to be pressed wood products made using adhesives that contain urea-formaldehyde (UF) resins.

Pressed wood products made for indoor use include particleboard, used as sub-flooring and shelving and in cabinetry and furniture; hardwood plywood paneling, used for decorative wall covering and in cabinets and furniture; and medium density fiberboard, used for drawer fronts, cabinets and furniture tops.

The EPA site states that medium density fiberboard contains a higher resin-to-wood ratio than any other UF pressed wood product and is generally recognized as being the highest formaldehyde-emitting pressed wood product.

According to the recent CDC report, scientists speculate that formaldehyde levels in the FEMA travel trailers tested were higher than in mobile homes because the former contain more composite wood products located within a smaller space and with poorer ventilation.

The report indicated that approximately half of all the units tested had levels of formaldehyde higher than 100 parts per billion, which is the level at which the Environmental Protection Agency has indicated adverse health effects become apparent.

Such levels are also considered significantly above the 16 parts per billion level recommended by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health for exposure to formaldehyde in a workplace over an eight-hour period.

While the amount of formaldehyde emitted by each trailer reportedly did not exceed the 0.4 parts per million limit set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Michael McGeehin, director of the CDC's division of environmental health hazards, noted in a recent statement that the HUD standards used in the tests were only meant to be applied to larger mobile homes.

In its earlier study, the CDC reported average levels of 77 parts per billion within the tested units, a number significantly higher than the 10 to 17 parts per billion concentration seen in newer homes today. In some instances, the levels found were as high as 590 parts per billion.

Levels listed

Looking at a breakdown of the testing by individual manufacturer, the CDC found an average level of 108 parts per billion in Pilgrim-brand travel trailers, 103 in trailers made by Gulf Stream, 102 in those made by Keystone and 85 in those made by Forest River.

Gulf Stream was by far the most common brand among FEMA's nearly 47,000 trailers, park models and mobile homes with more than 14,600 units delivered. Forest River is the second most utilized manufacturer with about 3,200 units.

After the CDC's findings were revealed on Feb. 14, each of the four RV companies received a letter from the Oversight Committee requesting all documents and communications regarding the trailers be turned over.

Then, in mid-June, the Oversight Committee took their investigation one step further, this time sending letters to the presidents of each of the four RV companies requesting that they attend the July 9 hearing ready to testify on why elevated levels of formaldehyde have been found in their products.


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