Common cleaning agent poses hazard to car wash employees

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Common cleaning agent poses hazard to car wash employees

UW, state L&I find that hydrofluoric acid, used against road grime and to brighten wheels, is 'insidiously toxic'
Jeff Hodson

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

Between 2001 and 2013, one worker in Washington state died after ingesting hydrofluoric acid and 48 others sustained chemical burns, seven so seriously that they required hospitalization.

Researchers from the University of Washington School of Public Health and the state Department of Labor & Industries (L & I) and reviewed workers’ compensation data in the during a 12-year span.

Hydrofluoric acid also is found in wheel-brightening products sold for home use.
picture of gloved hand washing a car's tire

 The results were published in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. 

Hydrofluoric acid is commonly used to lighten aluminum, remove rust and break down roadway grime. It also is found in wheel-brightening and boat-brightening products sold for home use. Even at low concentrations, it can be “insidiously toxic,” the report noted, because workers may feel no 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. 

It is unknown how or why the chemical was ingested by the worker who died, researchers said.

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

The research was led by Carolyn Reeb-Whitaker, a certified industrial hygienist for L & I and an alumna of the School of Public Health. Co-authors included David Bonauto, clinical instructor of UW’s Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences, and Public Health alumna Carly Eckert.