Levels of harmful airborne pollutants in nail salons are similar to that of an oil refinery or an auto garage, putting employees at increased risk of developing cancers, respiratory difficulties and skin irritation, a study warns. The research, which monitored volatile organic compound (VOC) levels in six nail salons, is among the first to illustrate the serious health risks prevalent in the industry.
According to a team from the University of Colorado Boulder in the US, nail salon employees face increased health risks due to high levels of indoor airborne pollutants such as formaldehyde and benzene. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has determined that long-term exposure to carcinogenic compounds significantly raises the chances of developing cancers such as leukemia and Hodgkin's lymphoma.
"The study provides some of the first hard evidence that these environments are dangerous for workers and that better policies need to be enacted to protect them," said Lupita Montoya, lead author of the research. Montoya's interest in researching airborne hazards in nail salons dates back nearly a decade. She recalls visiting a salon years ago and being struck by the pungent smell of open chemicals used in gel and acrylic nail applications.
The air quality could not be very good in such a confined space with poor ventilation, she suspected, drawing on her background as a mechanical engineer. However, while many of the VOCs from nail products had already been identified, no scientific studies had looked at the long-term health impacts for workers exposed to them day in and day out.
Montoya tried to get field tests started, but securing a location proved difficult. Nail salons in the US are small businesses, employing a predominantly minority workforce and lacking the resources to adequately address worker health and safety. Fearing consequences, many declined to participate, Montoya said.
In 2017, four undergraduate students working with Montoya used personal connections to help secure access to six salons for a monitoring test over the course of 18 months. The salons agreed to participate on the condition of anonymity. The researchers set up equipment to monitor known VOCs such as benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes (BTEX, collectively) along with formaldehyde.
While formaldehyde levels were similar to those measured in other settings, the study turned up higher-than-expected concentrations of harmful benzene, which has been linked to leukemia, in all six salons.
The team asked employees to fill out questionnaires about employment practices, safety practices and health symptoms. Technicians reported working an average of 52.5 hours per week, with some ranging as high as 80 hours per week.
Seventy per cent of workers reported experiencing at least one adverse symptom, with common responses including headaches, skin irritation and eye irritation. The study found that for workers in some salons, lifetime cancer risk was up to 100 times higher than baseline EPA-issued levels.
The researchers stressed that salon customers, however, face significantly fewer risks. The observed levels of air pollution observed are unlikely to have any negative health effects on all but the most vulnerable, such as those who are pregnant or have serious asthma.
The team is also working on ways to reduce VOC concentrations passively using low-cost, absorbent materials like heat-treated coal or wood with strong affinity for organic molecules like BTEX compounds.
These activated carbon materials can remove harmful VOCs through passive diffusion. Researchers used activated carbon-based materials to create gallery-worthy artwork. The pieces could hang on the wall in a nail salon, pleasing to the eye while quietly cleaning the air. However, this method takes a long time.
Air jets that direct polluted air toward the absorbent material with greater flow provide far more efficient removal. In an ideal real-world setting, small jets would sit at the end of each table, fanning the chemical fumes directly toward the charcoal artwork, efficiently eliminating lingering VOCs.