Hydrofluoric Acid – Renewed Warnings

Dangerous chemicals were used to clean vehicles in the car wash business for decades. The type and quality of a chemical was dictated by speed of use, effectiveness, and cost per vehicle. Important for any car wash, however, no matter the product, is the safety of its employees, customers, and the environment.

Now, one dangerous tradition is back in the headlines, but the good news is that advanced technology will permit you to select the best chemical for replacement and transitioning to a safe product for the future.

Car wash owners and operators know that hydrofluoric acid (HF) is a chemical that poses health risks, but many still use it, especially to clean wheels. It’s extremely dangerous, since it doesn’t cause immediate skin burns that you can feel as other acids do. Instead, HF seeps through tissue, eats into bones, and turns calcium into calcium fluoride, taking hours before the burn victim realizes the damage.

Leading detailers, car wash owners, and industry officials admit that HF usage has grown and that the figure may now be as high as 50 percent of operators. That’s a dramatic swing from 2008 when a past president of the International Carwash Association (ICA) said, “Historically, HF’s been one of the centerpiece chemicals used in detergents in this industry but today, I’d estimate it’s used in less than 25 percent of car washes, and that number is declining every day.”


In an advisory statement issued in August this year, the ICA strongly recommended that car wash owners discontinue the use of HF (hydrofluoric acid) and ABF (ammonium bi-fluoride) citing member concerns from the owner and vendor community as the reason for changing its previous stance.

The ICA’s statement coincided with recent HF findings by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and hazard warnings issued by some states:

From Oregon                      

Ammonium bi-fluoride (ABF) is often substituted for HF and passed off as an “acid-free” ingredient in products. ABF’s fluoride ions are just as hazardous as those of HF.

From Washington

Do you remember the first season of Breaking Bad when Walter White asked Jesse to pick up some hydrofluoric acid and a plastic tote at the hardware store? Walt knew that hydrofluoric acid (HF) eats through bodies.

From the CDC

Less hazardous alternatives to HF-based wash products are available, and product substitution could have averted the HF burn injuries described in this report. Efforts to identify less hazardous alternatives to HF-based industrial wash products are warranted.


HF poses a serious inhalation hazard. For this reason, liquid HF cleaner should not be applied with pump sprayers because it puts the HF in aerosol form. All cases with extensive skin burns will have some vapor inhalation unless a respirator is used.

A serious HF burn at low concentration covering less than 2 percent of your body can kill you. Skin contact, even with diluted HF solutions (< 2 percent) will burn. Permanent pain, paralysis, or disability can result. Splashes to the eye may cause blindness.

Here are some examples of how people were affected by exposure:

• A worker spilled low dilution 2 percent hydrofluoric acid (HF) solution wheel cleaner on his shoes. He suffered severe tissue burns on both feet and the employee lost three weeks of work.
• Workers usually suffer from burns to the head, eyes, or hands after manipulating the chemical. In one industrial incident, seven of 48 exposed workers were hospitalized; three had third-degree burns. Two of them required surgery for the burns.
• A teenage girl wore latex gloves tainted with HF and her fingers turned black within a day requiring amputation. Both her fellow employees and her employers thought that the product was safe.
• A worker accidentally splashed chemical on his left leg. About 90 minutes later, the employee had a brown area on his ankle and a burn to the lower leg. Treated at the hospital he had some skin removed and underwent a skin graft.

Ed Foulke, former head of OSHA, said that at a recent industry roundtable operators asked him many questions regarding the storage and use of respirators for use with HF and how to  make sure that respirators work for OSHA inspections. OSHA may be taking a hard look at the continued use of HF following the recent ICA and industry announcements.


Dangerous chemicals have hidden costs and risks. Many operators don’t factor in the true cost of using a corrosive chemical like HF.  While HF may be inexpensive to purchase, there are already companies with effective and safe non-corrosive alternatives on the market. By factoring in your savings from not having to replace concrete and conveyors, along with OSHA-required safety gear and training becoming unnecessary, the cost difference between HF and non-corrosive chemicals may be negligible. Costly car wash mitts, latex, and leather gloves do not protect workers from HF.  When you add the costs for the respirator, the annual re-stock of calcium gluconate gel for first aid, and toss in added workman’s compensation premiums for good measure, you begin to get a more accurate cost of using HF over safer alternatives.


Look for vendors who develop non-HF alternatives to supplement the ones that already exist. Car wash owners should allocate the time to find, test, and use products that will avert the HF burn injuries that have previously hurt and/or sidelined unsuspecting industry workers. If you get a sample, make sure that the person testing it is equipped to make an educated decision.

Every car wash veteran has a nightmare story about workers who didn’t follow instructions. There are products out there that clean wheels as well as, if not better, than any acid-based cleaner — with cost savings as well.

Some HF alternatives are highly concentrated, which helps with shipping costs, and they are non-corrosive, making them ideal for concrete and equipment longevity. Acidity is not the only safety factor; keep in mind that alkaline base products can be caustic with pH as high as 10, and even popular neutral pH products may have warnings for acute toxicity.

There are only two signal words: “Danger” and “Warning.” Within a specific hazard class, “Danger” is used for the more severe hazards and “Warning” is used for the less severe hazards. If the product carries a “warning” label rather than a “danger” label, you are probably dealing with a safer product.

Remember that car wash owners and vendors share a common goal: to give customers an experience that will make them want to return. We want them to tell their friends and neighbors they received the best professional attention with an emphasis on courtesy, value, and safety for their entire family. That’s what you expect of your vendors, and that’s what your customer expects of you.

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