The Cost of Clean - 13 WTHR Indianapolis

13 Investigates

The Cost of Clean

Updated:
Hydrofluoric acid can eat through dirt and grime. It can also eat through skin. Hydrofluoric acid can eat through dirt and grime. It can also eat through skin.
Bill Catalfio says a small amount of diluted HF severely burned a worker at his Michigan car wash. Bill Catalfio says a small amount of diluted HF severely burned a worker at his Michigan car wash.
WTHR testing shows Mike's Express car washes use hydrofluoric acid, but company officials say it's a secret. WTHR testing shows Mike's Express car washes use hydrofluoric acid, but company officials say it's a secret.
Hydrofluoric acid penetrates through glass in less than three minutes in a Purdue laboratory. Hydrofluoric acid penetrates through glass in less than three minutes in a Purdue laboratory.
Joe Peterson will not allow his chemists to add HF to his company's car washing detergents. Joe Peterson will not allow his chemists to add HF to his company's car washing detergents.

Bob Segall/13 Investigates

Detroit - Bill Catalfio has been washing cars for 17 years, but there is one day at his car wash he'll never forget.

"It was the worst day of my life," Catalfio recalls. "I cried for days."

The owner of Mr. C's Carwash in suburban Detroit says that day is October 30, 1999. A teenage worker named Kelly was cleaning tire rims when the rim cleaner leaked onto two of her fingers. Kelly went home at the end of her shift, not realizing that an ingredient in that cleaning solution was penetrating through her skin and seeking out her bones. No one at the car wash realized Kelly had been exposed to a potentially deadly chemical until she came to work the next day.

"The two fingers on her left hand were black. They looked like sparrow's claws," Catalfio said, shaking his head. "The chemical attacked her. Doctors tried to save the fingers but they couldn't. They ended up cutting off the fingers at the knuckle."

The chemical that injured Kelly is hydrofluoric acid or HF. The powerful acid - sometimes used in car washing products as a cleaning agent - has a nasty reputation, and scientists say that reputation is well deserved.

"The acid is deadly"

Scientific journals and safety data information sheets report small amounts of hydrofluoric acid spilled on less than 10% of the body can be lethal, and even brief exposure to HF vapor can cause serious injury.

"I take lots of precautions because the acid is deadly," says Darryl Granger, an assistant professor of geochemistry at Purdue University. "Just a little bit spilling could literally be enough to kill me."

Granger and other Purdue researchers are not allowed to handle HF without wearing a spill-proof lab coat, gloves, sleeve covers and a face shield.

In his laboratory, Granger uses hydrofluoric acid dissolved to 49% strength to dissolve rocks. He showed 13 Investigates how that acid will dissolve glass in just a matter of seconds, and he says it does the same thing to human skin.

"The HF penetrates through your skin and into your tissue, works down to the bone and attacks the bone, turning it into calcium fluoride. More importantly, it gets into your blood stream, sequestering all the calcium in your blood, and that will stop your heart," he said.

The most insidious part: victims of HF poisoning don't feel any pain until it is too late.

Unlike other acids which immediately cause discomfort, hydrofluoric acid is painless upon initial contact. The onset of pain can take up to twelve hours, and by that time, the damage can be irreversible.

"I was very ignorant about how dangerous it was," Catalfio admitted. "The stuff sure worked great and the shine, it was beautiful. But it's not worth it. It's one of the most severe chemicals out there. I don't feel it should be in the car wash business."

Some scared, others not

What happened at Mr. C's Carwash made headlines and scared many car wash operators. That same year, Professional Carwashing & Detailing magazine published an article about the dangers of hydrofluoric acid, calling the chemical "a deadly rinse."  Those events, coupled with the development of new car washing chemicals, triggered a sharp decline in the use of HF in car washes.

"Historically, it's been one of the centerpiece chemicals used in detergents in this industry," said Mark Thorsby, president of the International Carwash Association. "But today, I'd estimate it's used in less than 25% of car washes, and that number is declining every day."

One of the car wash chains still using HF is right here in Indiana.

Indianapolis-based Mike's Express Carwash is the largest car wash operator in the Midwest and one of the largest in the nation.

Its 34 car washes use HF, but top company officials refuse to admit it. They won't tell 13 Investigates what chemicals they use, saying only that its "secret formula" is a "proprietary blend of special solutions."

So how does WTHR know Mike's uses hydrofluoric acid?

Because it's no secret to company employees.

Learning the truth

Managers at five Indianapolis-area Mike's Express car washes told 13 Investigates HF is used at their facilities to clean cars.

Most of them said it is used only in the company's "wheel bright" solution used to clean and shine tire rims. But one employee told us it is also used in Mike's pre-soak detergent that is sprayed all over each vehicle.

Wearing protective equipment recommended by a laboratory, 13 Investigates staff collected samples of Mike's pre-soak solution during recent visits to the car wash. Test results confirmed the foamy solution did contain hydrofluoric acid.

Mike's Express owner Bill Dahm and chief operating officer Bill Schaming refused to meet with 13 Investigates to discuss the company's use of hydrofluoric acid.

Dahm did send an e-mail to WTHR's general manager asking that WTHR "decline from reporting on this story."

Through a public relations firm, he later sent a statement that says Mike's Express Carwashes have safely cleaned more than 75 million cars due to strong safety procedures and safety training for employees, and that the company uses new technologies that protect employees and customers from contact with its detergents.

"Perfectly safe?"

In addition, Mike's employees and managers told us the HF in their carwash is not dangerous because it is highly diluted.

"It's been tested and it's not going to hurt anything," said an employee at Mike's 86th Street location. "It's perfectly safe."

13 Investigates was told the same thing at Rama Carwash.  While company officials did not return multiple phone calls from WTHR, a manager at Rama's Greenwood location (560 N S.R. 135) said the company uses a form of HF to clean tire rims.

"In its full strength it will eat the flesh off your bones in a matter of minutes, but in the concentration it gets on the car, it's very cut down," the Rama manager said. "You don't really need to be afraid of the term hydrofluoric acid."

Bill Catalfio says his HF detergent was very diluted, too, and that did not matter.

"It was way diluted and then cut down another 300-to-1 from the barrel," he said, adding that even a tiny amount of hydrofluoric acid was enough to cause serious injury. "It still nailed us and it shouldn't be in a car wash at all. None."

"If you dilute it so much that it's safe, then it won't clean the car, so why use it at all?" asks Joe Peterson.

Peterson owns Crown Technology, an Indianapolis company that makes chemical detergents for several industries, including the carwash business.

"We will not use hydrofluoric acid," he said. "We've been asked to make products with HF and we've absolutely said no."

Peterson doesn't want to use HF, and neither do the chemists in his research lab.

"It cleans very well but it's just too dangerous," said Crown Technology research manager Darren Bowman. "I would be very leery of using it even at the [diluted] levels at a carwash. I wouldn't want to come in contact with it."

Crown Technology's car washing solutions rely on different types of acids and alkaline formulas in lieu of hydrofluoric acid.

"I'm not talking to you about this to sell more of my products," Peterson said. "I'm worried about anyone who would come into contact with this stuff, and my fear is the teenagers working at car washes who might not realize they're being exposed to it."

Different kind of damage

Peterson also worries about what the acid can do to cars.

"Small amounts of HF is enough to cause damage," he said. "I've seen the damage to my cars, and that's why I don't go to certain car washes right now."

Peterson says on some cars, HF can cloud and etch windshields, damage rims and discolor trim and moldings. Carwash magazines   and websites have long discussed those issues, and some car wash workers are aware of the potential problems, too.

"The HF in the wheel bright will damage finishes on some wheels, like polished aluminum," a Mike's worker told WTHR.

"The main thing you want to worry about with the hydrofluoric acid is etching glass," said a manager at Rama. "And over time with repetitive use, it can dull the paint on your rocker panels." (A rocker panel is a part of the car's body panel which is considered to be the lowest panel along the side of the vehicle in between the two wheel wells.)

Boyz Car Wash in Noblesville doesn't  use HF because company officials worry about the potential damage to customers' vehicles.

"It's not just the health risks we're trying to avoid," said Boyz Car Wash president Helen Shuttle, who has more than two decades of experience in the car washing industry. "HF is known to dull the finish of the car so we won't use it."

"Those complaints are far and few between," Thorsby said. "The [International Carwash] association hears about those things from time to time, but they are not very frequent."

Thorsby says his organization is concerned about splashing and spilling of hydrofluoric acid at car washes because "it's not healthy for people to come in contact with it."  But he says ICA, which represents more than 25,000 car washes in a $24 billion per year industry, is not opposed to car washes using HF, as long as they do so safely.

A risky tradition

"A sharp knife is dangerous, but we all like sharp knives, right?" Thorsby said. "The same thing with HF. It can be dangerous if you don't treat it properly ... so the big thing is to follow the instructions."

At the same time, ICA welcomes the decision by many car washes to use HF-free cleaning solutions.

"We know there are other products we can use to clean a car just as effectively and just as cost-efficiently," Thorsby said.

So then why would a car wash choose to use a product that has inherent dangers?

Thorsby says the most likely answer is tradition. "Only because they've used it for years without any problems ... and, therefore, they don't believe there's any risk because they follow the procedures," he said.

ICA has not taken an official position on the use of HF in car washes, other than to promote its safe use by those operators who choose to utilize it. But the organization says it is important for both employees and customers to know what chemicals are being used at a car wash.

Chemical Confusion - Local car washes that don't use HF

Employees at four Sparkling Image car washes in Indianapolis told WTHR their company does not use HF to clean cars, while employees at another local Sparkling Image location said they do.

"Our employees are not chemists so they really don't know what they're looking at," explained Sparkling Image regional manager Jamey Squires. He said his company has not used HF to clean cars since 1998.

"It can be a pretty nasty product," he said. "It should never be used at Sparkling Image. It's not safe for employees."

Squires allowed 13 Investigates into the chemical room of its West 38th Street car wash in Indianapolis to see the ingredients of all its car wash products. The company's rim cleaner uses phosphoric acid and its pre-soak detergent utilizes an alkaline solution.

Several other full-service car washes in the metro area permitted WTHR to see their cleaning solutions, as well. Those inspections showed Classic Touch Carwash (3685 W 86th St.), Soft Touch Carwash (7012 Georgetown Rd.) and Kopetsky's Carwash (6433 W 16th St.) in Indianapolis do not use HF in any of their cleaning products.

WTHR also inspected labels on 55-gallon containers of car washing soap at some local gas station and convenience store car washes (including BP, Shell and Village Pantry) and did not find any products containing hydrofluoric acid at those locations, either.   

By comparison, company officials at Mike's Express Carwash declined repeated requests by WTHR to see its chemical storage areas, to view its ingredient lists and to examine its material safety data sheets.  They also would not confirm or deny whether their car washes use HF.

"That's proprietary and their labor lawyers told them they don't have to tell you anything," said Jan Vermillion of The Vermillion Group, a public relations firm retained by Mike's.

On its website, Mike's says its shampoos are a "secret formula" blend of eight solutions.

"Go Somewhere Else"

Thorsby says he has a "big problem" with car washes that keep secrets.

"I have a right to know what you're going to do to my car," he said.  "Asking to know what chemicals they use -- I don't think that's an unreasonable request and responsible carwash operators typically will have that conversation with consumers."

So what should you do if a car wash is not willing to telling you what chemicals they use?

Thorsby suggests taking your business elsewhere.

"Absolutely! Go somewhere else," he said. "You have a right to know."

UPDATE: Sources close to Mike's Express Carwash tell WTHR that soon after 13 Investigates contacted Mike's about this investigation in early May, Mike's management began looking for new chemical blends to phase out hydrofluoric acid in its wheel brightener and pre-soak formulas. Some of those blends are now being tested by the company.

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