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Toxic Indoor Air in Nail Salons, Part One

Indoor air quality is a big concern for those with allergies, asthma, and multiple chemical sensitivity. While we often focus on avoiding certain products that pollute indoor air (harsh cleaning products or home fragrance items come to mind), it's also important to know about certain places that are generally so toxic it might be best to avoid them altogether.

Nail salons are one of these places. Realizing that you are inhaling and absorbing chemicals that are known to or suspected of causing cancer and birth defects, among other symptoms, certainly takes the relaxation out of what's supposed to be a time for pampering.

Customers aren't the only ones affected. Handling these chemicals and inhaling these fumes day in and day out, hour after hour, nail salon workers are at the biggest risk for experiencing short and long term effects from exposure.

In this two-part series, we will discuss how nail salons become so polluted, why many nail salon workers are particularly vulnerable, the effects of specific chemicals found in nail salons, and most importantly, what can be done to allay these effects.

Indoor Air Pollution in Nail Salons

Nail salon workers at rish from toxic chemicals.Nail polish and other products used in nail salons, such as base coats, top coats, polish removers, and adhesives used for artificial nails are full of many of the same chemicals found in an auto body shop, according to the article to Nail salons' workers, clients at risk from toxic chemicals on SeattlePI.com.

Susan Titus, an indoor program specialist working with the Environmental Protection Agency in Seattle, describes working with nail salon chemicals: "They are heavy-duty toxic chemicals so you can't just use them indiscriminately. You have to be aware of the chemicals that you are using. I'm guessing that most of the customers that go in are not really thinking about it."

The indoor air of nail salons becomes so saturated with chemicals not only when the chemicals are used, but also when they are thrown away. For instance, a cotton ball soaked in a noxious chemical continues to emit fumes into the air even after it's thrown into a trash can. Furthermore, open containers of all kinds of products, from polish and nail hardener to disinfectants, allow these chemicals to evaporate into the air where they are easily inhaled. This action creates a veritable toxic soup out of nail salon air.

Children, Pregnant Women - Most Vulnerable to Toxic Chemicals

No doubt customers of nail salons are exposed to toxic chemicals when they get their nails done. It must be noted that children and pregnant women - both of whom can be seen at nail salons frequently - are especially at-risk when it comes to the effects of toxic chemicals.

Pregnant women are most vulnerable to toxic chemicals.In an effort to address part of the problem, San Francisco became the first city in the United States to publicly identify salons that use nail polishes, base coats, and top coats that are free of toluene, dibutyl phthalate (DBP), and formaldehyde. This "toxic trio" is identified on the hit list of the California Safe Cosmetics Act as causing cancer or birth defects.

Science backs up these concerns. Dibutyl phtahlate, for example, is easily absorbed through the skin and intestinal tract and can cross the placenta to an unborn fetus. The chemical has been linked to development problems in the male genitals of rats and humans! Pregnant rodents exposed to DBP had fewer live pups, and the offspring they did have was smaller.

It's not only children and pregnant customers who must be especially on the lookout, but children of nail salon workers (who often spend after-school hours in the back room of the salon) and pregnant nail salon workers as well.

Nail Salon Workers: Politics Increase Dangers of Exposure to Toxic Chemicals

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, approximately 155,000 people in the United States are professional manicurists and pedicurists. Of these, a large number are Vietnamese immigrants, who made working in nail salons their niche business when they began coming to the United States in the 1970s. Their move to this country coincided with the shift in spa services like manicures and pedicures from being a rare luxury enjoyed by a few to being almost a monthly ritual enjoyed by many.

While the nail salon industry has provided jobs for many of these immigrants, this is not without its drawbacks. Grateful to have any job at all, immigrants are not likely to complain about poor working conditions such as bad indoor air.

Indeed, Cora Roelofs, an occupational health researcher at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, who conducted a health survey of Vietnamese-American nail salon workers, reported "a greater prevalence of respiratory and skin problems and headaches compared with the general population." She further points out that nail technicians "are generally young immigrant women, a vulnerable population. Rarely is attention paid to the experience of new immigrants and the jobs they hold."

Many bosses take advantage of this vulnerability by not making provisions for an overall safe working environment (like installing adequate ventilation systems) and by not providing personal safety gear, such as masks, to their employees.

Last year, New York State passed a law that requires salon owners to supply employees with masks and gloves upon request. As a NYTimes.com article At Some Nail Salons, Feeling Pretty and Green reports, assembly woman Linda B. Rosenthal, who represents the Upper West Side, sponsored the bill because "many bosses think masks send a bad message to the customer."

Environmental Protection AgencyTo become licensed, nail salon workers must undergo 600 hours of training, which does cover matters such as handling dangerous chemicals safely. The Environmental Protection Agency also provides material such as Protecting the Health of Nail Salon Workers, which includes checklists on topics like gloves, masks, and handling of products. However, much of this material, including chemical safety data sheets, is hard for Vietnamese workers, who often barely speak English, to understand.

Another factor that puts Vietnamese nail salon workers at increased risk relates to a sad chapter of our history. Dr. Thu Quach, an epidemiologist with the Cancer Prevention Institute of California who has studied Vietnamese nail workers, explains that a complicating factor when considering the effects of nail salon chemicals on workers is that "a lot of the workers have been exposed to chemical warfare, especially dioxins. We don't know if it makes them more vulnerable to chronic health problems."

Knowing the dangers faced by nail salon workers, as well as the likelihood that they are unable to make things better for themselves, should definitely make it uncomfortable for us to enjoy their services without doing something to help make a difference. As is often the case, our patronage of a service is a "vote" for supporting it - and in this case an acceptance of conditions as they are. Along with nail salon owners, wouldn't you agree that customers of nail salons share the burden of responsibility to make things healthier?

We can do this by spreading the word about both the dangers of nail salon chemicals and how to make nail salons safer. Tune in next month for more information about the specific effects of various chemicals as well as what has been done and what needs to be done to protect the health of nail salon workers and their customers.