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Carwash Chemicals Shown to Cause Serious Burns to Workers

CAR WASH toxicNew research by the Department of Labor & Industries’ (L&I) has shown that a common chemical used in commercial carwashes can endanger the health of people who work with it.

SHARP, an occupational safety and health research program at L&I, closely examined 12 years’ worth of workers’ compensation injury reports indicating that more than 50 workers in Washington have been burned after coming into contact with car and truck wash products containing hydrofluoric acid.

The SHARP program found that seven of those injured workers were hurt so severely that they needed hospitalization. The reports examined spanned the years from 2001 – 2013. The new research was just published in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

“Hydrofluoric acid is insidiously toxic at the low concentrations used in vehicle washing,” said Carolyn Whitaker, SHARP researcher. “Initially, when it touches the skin there may be little or no pain. That means workers are often unaware of the burn until later and typically delay getting treatment.”

Carwashes commonly use the chemical to brighten aluminum and dissolve tar and grime from the roads. About half of those injured worked in commercial car washes. The study also found injuries to truck drivers and truck wash workers.

The SHARP Program just published an easy-to-read safety hazard alert for carwash employers and workers. Whitaker and the SHARP Program are also urging car and truck washes to use alternative products that do not include hydrofluoric acid. If carwashes decide to continue use of this dangerous chemical, they should take steps to ensure that workers are not exposed to it, and provide adequate education to employees to train them for safe use and make sure they are fully aware of the serious hazard. Much of the danger can be minimized by always wearing appropriate personal protective gear.

But it’s not just workers who are at risk. Consumers should be also know that hydrofluoric acid is in home-use products used for wheel brightening and boat brightening. And no one should be lulled into a false sense of safety just because they use small diluted amounts. Even low concentrations have been shown to be hazardous. L&I suggests that consumers who want to brighten their cars or boats should opt for less dangerous products, and always use protective equipment and follow the label directions very closely.

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