Nail Salon Workers Face Horrifying Health Issues

Photographed by Tracy Wang.
Yesterday, we were shocked to hear about the terrible job conditions faced by nail salon workers — who are largely overworked, underpaid, and severely underappreciated. Now, in a follow-up article published today, The New York Times reveals the many serious health issues those employees also contend with. In particular, the article follows the stories of salon workers who have suffered miscarriages, cancer, and constant respiratory issues due to long hours and exposure to dangerous chemicals. The article calls out these three culprits specifically: Dibutyl Phthlate (DBP) is used as a plasticizer that makes nail polish more fluid. In the short-term, DBP acts as a nose, mouth, and throat irritant. But, in the long-term, it can have effects on the kidneys and nervous system. The chemical was also added to California's Proposition 65 as a suspected teratogen, meaning it may cause birth defects at levels above the current recommendations. Recent animal studies suggest DBP exposure may cause issues for hatching chicks and testosterone levels in adult male rats. Toluene is a solvent used to make nail polish glide on more easily. Inhaling toluene can cause headaches, nausea, and fatigue as well as irritation of the eyes and upper respiratory tract. Overall, though, the EPA says there's insufficient evidence to assess how carcinogenic toluene is. In a study published in 2011, researchers equipped 20 California salons with personal air-quality monitors to get an idea of the chemical levels workers are exposed to during a typical shift. They found the level of toluene was above the recommended guidelines.   Formaldehyde, known as a preservation agent, is also used to help polish harden. Low levels of formaldehyde can irritate the nose and eyes, eventually causing lung issues as well. In large amounts, formaldehyde exposure can cause several kinds of cancer. In a 2004 study of over 11,000 textile workers, formaldehyde exposure was linked to an increased rate of leukemia deaths. But, this contradicted the results of an earlier study of over 14,000 workers. Today, the Department of Health and Human Services lists it as a known human carcinogen.  Linking the individual cases in The Times back to specific ingredients may be scientifically dubious; cosmetic chemist Ron Robinson of BeautyStat says that most major brands have removed these ingredients from their products. However, a salon may be using different polishes that still contain them. And, according to Slate, a 2012 report from California's Environmental Protection Agency found high levels of toluene even in supposedly toluene-free polishes. Still, Robinson reminds us that "the issue is not for the customer who's spending a half hour or 45 minutes in the chair. There’s no concern there. The issue is for the salon worker who’s spending hours upon hours, weeks upon weeks, years upon years exposed to these harmful ingredients." He advises that concerned consumers ask for proper ventilation, make sure salon workers wear masks, and stick with salons that use proven-safe products. Pampering yourself shouldn't be at the expense of someone else's health. (The New York Times)

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