Dear EarthTalk

I recently got my car detailed at a local place and then gasped at the chemical fumes when I got inside. Are there green detailers out there, or products that I could use myself to keep my vehicle clean and my family out of harm’s way?

David Berkowitz

Newton, MA

Traditionally, auto detailing has employed a range of not-so-green-friendly products such as ammonia, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), nonphenolethoxolates (NPEs), abrasive detergents, and chemical-based leather, vinyl, fabric and carpet treatments. Inside the car, they can off-gas harsh airborne pollutants; when washed down storm drains they can wreak havoc on public water supplies.

Unfortunately, while environmental awareness is beginning to crop up among auto detailing services (online discussion boards are full of posts from professional detailers sharing their tips for greener, more effective products and formulations), finding a green detailing service isn’t very easy just yet, so doing it yourself might be the only way to ensure that the environment and your health are spared chemical insult. There are green detailing products and kits out there, easily found through an Internet search.

Two leading suppliers are Laura Klein’s Green Cleaning, and Mean Green. These companies, among others, specialize in degreasers, dashboard dressings, tire cleaners, spot removers and other products made with natural, biodegradable water- and plant-based substances (including coconut, palm, citrus, corn and soy), combined and concentrated to be as effective as or better than their chemical-laden counterparts.

Another way to be green and clean at the same time is to choose wash and wax products that don’t contain harsh chemical surfactants — and as such don’t require water-wasting, polluting rinses. No-Wet Waterless Concepts and Optimum Polymer Technologies are two leading manufacturers for such goods.

Do-it-yourselfers should be careful not to dump wastewater into nearby storm drains not intended to carry toxic run-off. Most reputable car wash businesses go to great lengths to make sure the water, soaps, oils and other dirt from your car doesn’t end up polluting groundwater, rivers and streams, and so should you. If you clean your car in your own driveway or garage, try to collect any run-off and dispose of it into a drain or toilet that will send it through the sewage treatment system, not into the curbside storm run-off drain that may well lead directly to a local water body or shoreline.

While finding a green detailer may not be easy, you can start by asking those operators in your region if they currently use environmentally-friendly products and/or processes. If not, ask them if they would be amenable to greening up their operations for the sake of attracting customers like you.

Some detailers that have already taken the green plunge include: Ecodetail Services of Sacramento, Calif.; Car Wash Concepts of Aliso Viejo, Calif.; Gia’s Detailing of Long Island, NY; Scott’s Mobile Auto Detailing of Tarrant County, Texas; and Elite Detailing Service Inc. of Plainfield, Ill. These providers share an interest in environmental protection, use minimal amounts of water and other resources, and dispose of run-off according to the stringent standards set forth under the federal Clean Water and Clean Air acts.

Want to talk environment? Submit questions to earthtalk@emagazine.com.