Workers worry chemicals are harming their health
They never met, but her soft brown eyes still look out from his Facebook page, a smiling little girl counting the days until her father comes home.
William Alberto Gomez, 36, moved to New York from El Salvador shortly before she was born. Co-workers say he adored his little girl and worked long hours at a Tremont car wash to support her and his wife, who still live in Usulután, El Salvador.
But Gomez died suddenly on February 3, leaving his family and co-workers wondering how someone who seemed so healthy could die so young.
Gomez, who lived in the South Bronx, died three days after becoming sick while working at the C & P Car Wash on Webster Avenue. While there’s no evidence that his death was work-related, workplace safety at carwashes has long been a concern among workers and labor advocates, who allege car wash employees across the city are given little or no protection from harsh chemical detergents, wastewater and debris that comes off the cars.
According to co-workers, Gomez worked at the car wash for nine years, working 12 hours a day, 5 or 6 days per week, earning about $400 per week.
Like many car wash workers, also known as carwasheros, Gomez kept only what he needed to survive and sent most of his earning back home to support his family. He kept in touch with his daughter and wife through Facebook postings and video calls.
Co-workers say Gomez became sick while working on January 31, but took the bus home as he normally did. They say he sought treatment at Lincoln Hospital the next day, but was not admitted. A spokesperson for Lincoln Hospital could not comment, citing patient confidentiality.
A stunned roommate found him dead in his bedroom on the morning of February 3.
In an emailed statement, a spokesperson from the NYC Office of Chief Medical Examiner said Gomez’ death was related to hypertensive cardiovascular disease and he is considered to have died of natural causes.
“It’s not known if working at the car wash contributed to his medical condition,” said CUNY Public Health Professor Jack Caravanos.
But inhalation of chemical vapors has been known to trigger heart problems. In a study published last year in the journal Epidemiology: Open Access, researchers found pulmonary function in car wash workers to be “significantly affected,” likely due to exposure to chemicals and vehicle exhaust.
“Male mortality at age 36 is very rare and is always suspicious,” said Caravanos.
Workers at C&P, also known as the Cross Bronx Car Wash & Lube, say they’re exposed to strong chemical cleaning products and say a green liquid detergent has some of the strongest health effects.
“The product has a pungent odor and can make workers feel woozy,” said carwashero and union steward Juan Carlos, who added that most workers have not received chemical training.
After being invited into a store room at Cross Bronx, a Herald reporter observed several concentrated cleaning products from Mondo Products stacked along the walls. A few feet away a green liquid was puddled on the floor.
Technical data sheets from Mondo indicate rubber gloves, impervious clothing, rubber boots and in some cases chemical goggles are the recommended personal protective gear.
“These are powerful industrial cleaners, not the ones we buy at Home Depot,” said Caravanos.
Dirty water, along with the chemicals and grime that comes off the cars, is washed through a drain and into an approximately 8-foot deep well. Workers say chemical products aren’t the only hazard.
When the well fills with sludge, Carlos says washeros have to crawl inside and shovel out the grime and debris, often without proper training or equipment.
Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards prohibit workers from entering confined spaces without a permit and proper training.
In an emailed statement, OSHA spokesman Edmund Fitzgerald said the Cross Bronx Car Wash & Lube has an open inspection that began shortly after Gomez’ death and is ongoing. Fitzgerald was unable to comment on the specifics of the investigation.
According to OSHA’s website, seven car washes in the state currently have open inspections, including Cross Bronx Car Wash, U.R.D. Car Wash and Tremont Car Wash, all located in the Bronx.
Unlabeled chemicals, lack of required protective gear and machinery that is poorly maintained or used without proper safeguards are a few of the potentially hazardous conditions facing carwasheros, said Rocio Valerio, deputy director of New York Communities for Change, an organization advocating for improved health and safety standards at car washes.
“While there is no evidence to connect William’s death to his job,” Valerio said via email, “the fact remains that ‘carwasheros’ are exposed to potentially hazardous working conditions every day.”
The Herald attempted to contact Frank Roman and John Lage, who according to public records have both been associated with Cross Bronx, but as of publication neither has responded.
Last year the city passed the Car Wash Accountability Act, which would have required all car washes to be licensed and to post bond in order to protect workers from wage theft.
Nicholas Ruiz, an organizer with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union said before he died, Gomez was a proponent of the act and was involved in the unionization of carwasheros at Cross Bronx and across the city.
“He was an activist, a strong leader and very supportive of the workers,” said Ruiz, adding that carwasheros share a special bond with each other, often living and working together far away from their families.
But co-workers say Gomez’ mind was never far from his family in El Salvador and he often would call his daughter before she left for school, which was just before his shift started.
“She was his world,” said co-worker Roberto Corea. “He would tell her to work hard, that he loved her and he was coming home to see her.”