Are All Trailers Toxic?

by KMS Woodworks for Networx

It’s been a few years now after hurricane Katrina wrecked havoc along the Gulf Coast, but some lingering concerns are still alive. FEMA, in their efforts to provide temporary housing, purchased over 2.5 billion dollars worth of travel trailers and mobile homes. These trailers were quickly built and put into service. Later, after some time in these “temporary” structures, some people began to experience some ill-heath effects. Air quality monitoring found that elevated levels of formaldehyde were present in some of these trailers.

The media and public quickly bashed FEMA for supplying the displaced with “toxic tin-cans,” and these trailers have been sold off to various buyers at a value of about 7 cents on the dollar. Was it wrong to use trailers…which were portable, quick to provide, and relatively cheap? That’s a question that may never be answered and it’s a situation that may happen again. Agency spokesman Aaron Walker said, “FEMA stands confident in using travel trailers for emergency sheltering, …. To put it in perspective, we have almost 115,000 trailers out right now, and FEMA has received just over 20 complaints total.”

Are all trailers toxic?

The formaldehyde that was found in these trailers is an off-gassed by-product that is present in many homes. Plywood, OSB, carpeting, foam and hundreds of other products contain or release formaldehyde. Trailers often use more of these products, proportionally, than stick built homes. Thin plywood and laminates are lightweight, and therefore, widely used in the RV industry. If RV’s and trailers used conventional building materials like drywall, ceramic tile and solid hardwood flooring the “home” as an “end product” would be prohibitively heavy and not easy to pull behind your average car or SUV.

Trailers and RV’s are also typically used as part time residences, rather that full time dwellings, so the accumulative effects of chemical exposure is reduced. Public perception of a huge wrong committed by FEMA for using these trailers was largely to blame for the “fire-sale” that put many of these trailers back into the open market. When used as designed, trailers pose no serious health risk due to adverse chemical exposure. Each year the RV industry turns out over 300,000 units and the 140,000 or so that FEMA purchased after Katrina will eventually be intermixed with past and future supply. It is estimated that a trailer will often see 10 to 15 owners in its lifetime.

Do better trailers exist?

Widespread fears from these isolated events led to the introduction of some alternative options. Terradime introduced the Ecoplex™ last month and a number of other manufacturers have jumped onboard to produce “greener” RV’s. EverGreen Recreational Vehicles LLC has announced its E2 (Economical and Eco-friendly) Initiative, with the introduction of exclusive product enhancements across its full line of all composite travel trailers and fifth-wheels. Pricing on these newer generation trailers typically run between $30 to $40K, while the average “Katrina” trailer came in at less than $20K when first purchased.

Will people buy them?

Technology has allowed many items to be manufactured that are far superior to older low-tech versions. Yes, it would be possible to build a super light-weight carbon fiber aerodynamic trailer that does not off gas any toxins…but would it be affordable? Sadly, price still dictates the mindset of many individuals; this is demonstrated everyday with the continuous onslaught of inexpensive items arriving from China.

Affordable and healthy housing is a dream for many throughout the world, and for many here in the US. Alternative options are gaining in popularity, like homes built from used shipping containers, and home downsizing. The McMansion may have seen its peak and the “tiny house movement” is gaining momentum thanks to some pioneers like Dee Williams at Portland Alternative Dwellings, and Jay Shafer at the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company. One major obstacle to smaller affordable homes lie in zoning and building codes, Jay and Dee’s homes get around this, by being classified as “trailers.”

Environmental Poisoning: Is Your Home Hurting You?
Tiny Houses Create More Freedom
Trailer Park Living With a Twist
Finding Fulfillment in a 12×12 House


Cindy S
Cindy Smith5 months ago


Linus Schonnings
Linus Schonnings7 years ago

great article, now I really got something to think of

donna colby
donna colby7 years ago


Danuta W.
Danuta Watola7 years ago

This is great article

Danuta W.
Danuta Watola7 years ago

This is great article

Past Member
Inari T7 years ago

I guess it's a kind of "Catch-22", isn't it? They were trying to provide emergency housing for large numbers of people as quickly as possible; and as others have mentioned, a lot of new materials give off unpleasant fumes when they're first installed.

moggy w.
moggy w7 years ago

The article asks, can better trailers be built?- of course they can, If the builders were building them for their friends and family, you bet they would be better. But it's usually poor people who live in them, and only because of their use due to Katrina on a large scale, did anyone question the inherent unhealthiness of the materials.

Rebecca S.
Rebecca S7 years ago

I think as an emergency shelter, they did make the right choice in supplying these. Because it was either these cheaper trailers, or quite possibly no home at all.

Kathleen D.
Kathleen D7 years ago

It is absolutely horrific that as wealthy, industrialized nation, we are producing toxic materials for human consumption and use. I am damned mad that any person (I could care less what the emergency) is being harmed by products that are known to be hazardous materials. The very fact that humans are becoming ill or developing diseases that will kill them because our government can't get it's act together is, unthinkable.