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Posted by on in Occupational Health/IH
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Potential Occupational Exposures to Chemicals in Nail Salon Workers

Posted on behalf of Lauren Gloekler


In a series of New York Times articles published in May of 2015, health and safety issues related to nail salon workers in New York City were ushered into the public spotlight.  Between 155,000 and 393,000 people work in nail salons as manicurists and pedicurists in the United States, and are potentially at risk of exposure to chemicals that act as solvents, plasticizers, resins, pigments, and/or UV stabilizers in nail polish, polish removers, artificial nails, adhesives, and disinfectants. Some of these chemicals have been associated with  various health effects. Furthermore, studies have shown that nail salon workers are at increased risk of respiratory and skin irritation, spontaneous abortion, and neuropsychological effects (John et al. 1994; Hiipakka et al. 1987; LoSasso et al. 2001, 2002).

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has conducted several Health Hazard Evaluations (HHEs) of nail salons in Oklahoma, Illinois, and Ohio between 1989 and 1997. During these surveys, both area and personal air samples were collected. The chemicals of interest included various volatile organic chemicals (VOCs), formaldehyde, methacrylates, as well as respirable quartz and cristobalite. All samples were well below applicable full-shift (8-hr) time-weighted average occupational exposure limits, including NIOSH Recommended Exposure Limits (RELs), OSHA Permissible Exposure Limit (PELs), and ACGIH Threshold Limit Values (TLVs). Some samples were found to be below the respective analytical limits of detection.

As a result of the publicity surrounding the New York Times articles, the governor of New York has proposed state-wide mandatory safety requirements that nail salon workers wear appropriate respirators while sculpting nails, goggles when pouring chemicals, and gloves when applying potential hazardous substances.  Additionally, the U.S. EPA recommends that nail salon workers and salons use adequate ventilation (both in work tables and throughout the nail salon), to tightly close product containers, use minimal amounts of product, wear an appropriate respirator while transferring chemicals and dust masks for dust particles, and place waste in containers with lids in order to reduce the potential for inhalation exposures.  Regarding dermal exposures, it is recommended that technicians: 1) wash hands before and after handling chemicals and before eating, 2) wear disposable nitrile gloves while handling certain chemicals, 3) wear protective clothing, 4) use small amounts of product, 5) close containers when not in use, and 6) wear eye protection and/or gloves when transferring chemicals. In fact, research has indicated that technicians who wear gloves have significantly lower prevalence of skin symptoms. These recommendations are also consistent with those of OSHA.

Some of the issues highlighted by the New York Times are well known. However, given the large number of workers employed in nail salons, and who work with chemicals associated with potential adverse health effects on a daily basis, additional efforts should be focused on evaluating and reducing these occupational exposures. Additionally, legislation could be enacted (or simply enforced, if already in place) that would mandate the use of adequate ventilation and personal protective equipment in these settings.

Additional references:

Hiipakka D, Samimi B. Exposure of acrylic fingernail sculptors to organic vapors and methcrylate dusts. Am Ind Hyg Assoc J. 1987; 48 (3): 230-7. PMID: 3578034
John EM, Savitz DA, Shy CM. Spontaneous abortions among cosmetologists. Epidemiology 1994; 5 (2): 147-55. PMID: 8172989
LoSasso GL, Rapport LJ, Axelrod BN. Neuropsychological symptoms associated with low-level exposure to solvents and (meth)acrylates among nail technicians. Neuropsychiatry Neuropsychol Behav Neurol 2001; 14(3): 183-9. PMID: 11513102
LoSasso GL, Rapport LJ, Axelrod BN, Whitman RD. Neurocognitive sequelae of exposure to organic solvents and (meth)acrylates among nail-studio tehcnicians. Neuropsychiatry Neuropsychol Behav Neurol 2002; 15(1): 44-55. PMID: 11877551

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Dr. Anders Abelmann is a Supervising Health Scientist and Practice Area Lead for Industrial Hygiene and Exposure Science with Cardno ChemRisk. His principal areas of training and expertise include industrial hygiene, exposure and risk assessment, and occupational safety. He has been involved in researching, measuring and reconstructing exposure, and assessing risk to consumers and workers exposed to a variety of chemicals such as carbon monoxide, ethylene oxide, propylene oxide, toluene, styrene, formaldehyde, asbestos, and diacetyl.  Dr. Abelmann completed his doctorate in Public Health Science, with emphases in industrial hygiene and occupational safety, at the University of Illinois at Chicago. For his doctoral dissertation, he designed, executed, and evaluated a series of welding fume exposure experiments under laboratory-controlled conditions. A fractional factorial experimental design was used to evaluate process, environmental and physiological variables’ impacts on breathing zone concentrations. His master’s thesis research involved a life-cycle assessment of vegetable proteins, during which he evaluated the environmental impact associated with various protein substitutes in food products.

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