Environmental Health News

Study Finds Commercial Car Wash Chemical Can Harm Workers

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Close up of a vintage car

Hydrofluoric acid is commonly used on cars to lighten aluminum, remove rust and break down roadway grime. Even at low concentrations, it can be very toxic.


Ron Hilton/Dreamstime Stock Photos.

A new report highlights the health hazards faced by workers handling hydrofluoric acid in commercial car and truck washing operations.

Researchers from Washington State’s Department of Labor & Industries (L&I), many with connections to our department, reviewed workers’ compensation data in Washington state from 2001-2013. The results were published in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

One worker died after ingesting hydrofluoric acid and 48 others were burned by coming into contact with the chemical during the 12-year period. Seven of the workers were injured seriously enough to be hospitalized. (It is unknown how or why the chemical was ingested by the worker who died, researchers said.)

Hydrofluoric acid is commonly used to lighten aluminum, remove rust, and break down roadway grime. It can also be found in wheel brightening and boat brightening products sold for home use. Even at low concentrations, it can be “insidiously toxic,” the report notes, because workers might not feel any pain after it first touches the skin.

One worker who splashed his left leg while transferring a cleaning solution worked for 1.5 hours with soaked pants and shoes before developing a burning sensation, according to the report. He needed a skin graft and couldn’t return to work for six weeks.

The researchers said commercial car and truck washes could use less hazardous alternatives. If hydrofluoric acid is used, employees should wear proper protective equipment and should be trained how to minimize exposure. Nationally, an estimated 134,000 workers are employed in the car wash industry, the report notes.

The research was led by Carolyn Reeb-Whitaker, a certified industrial hygienist for L&I’s Safety & Health Assessment & Research for Prevention (SHARP) program and an alumna of our department (MS, Exposure Sciences, 2001). Co-authors included David Bonauto (MPH, Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 2000), a clinical instructor of environmental and occupational health sciences and research director for SHARP, and alumna Carly Eckert (MPH, Epidemiology, 2014), who trained with our department while conducting the research.

This story was originally published in ASPPH Friday Letter.

Return to Summer 2015 issue