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Nail salon workers could be at increased risk of cancer

Researchers say the danger comes from exposure to air pollution

Photo (c) kzenon - Getty Images
With the risks of air pollution seeming to increase every day, researchers from the University of Colorado at Boulder recently discovered how toxic fumes can affect nail salon workers.

According to the study, breathing in dangerous levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as formaldehyde, benzene, xylene, toluene, and ethylbenzene can increase nail salon workers’ risk of developing cancer.

“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 researcher Lupita Montoya.

Prioritizing clean air

While previous studies had explored the dangers associated with VOCs found in nail polish and other related products, no researchers had explored how the fumes affected the people who spend most of their time breathing them in -- nail salon workers.

Though Montoya struggled to find a nail salon willing to open its doors to field testing, members of her research team were able to find six salons in Colorado that allowed the researchers to run their tests, so long as they stayed anonymous.

Over the course of 18 months, the researchers utilized equipment that monitored employees’ exposure to VOCs, and then they had participants fill out questionnaires related to their own health concerns, as well as workplace efforts to prioritize health and safety.

All six salons tested positive for high levels of benzene, which has dangerous consequences. Exposure levels were high since the vast majority of nail salon workers reported working over 50 hours per week, and some as many as 80 hours per week.

While Montoya notes that the salons’ customers are safe due to the brief periods of time spent breathing in the fumes, the risk of cancer for salon workers is really troubling, especially considering that many reported feeling symptoms like skin or eye irritation and persistent headaches.

The researchers wanted to see how they could help reduce these risks for nail salon workers and ensure that their workplaces were safe. Though many traditional practices may interfere with day-to-day business in a nail salon, Montoya and her team found that they could utilize art pieces made with carbon-based materials that would be both aesthetically pleasing and work to clean the air of toxic fumes.

“We’ve seen high rates of VOC removal with this method in controlled lab settings -- nearly 100 percent,” said researcher Aaron Lamplugh. “We’re still optimizing it for the field, where conditions are more unpredictable.”

The researchers are still working to perfect this method, but they think these findings -- and their work towards a solution -- are important steps in the right direction toward making nail salons a safer, healthier place to work.

“There’s a huge knowledge gap and regulatory gap right now,” Lamplugh said. “We should invest in technology that’s going to solve a problem on the ground, where it’s accessible and usable.”

Steering clear of health scares

The negative health effects associated with air pollution seem to be endless, as researchers recently found that exposure to the fumes has led to an increased number of consumers in the emergency room with cardiovascular issues.

However, it isn’t all doom and gloom. Another recent study explored a simple way consumers can fight against air pollution: saving electricity. Though a difficult feat in a nail salon, it could come in handy in consumers’ homes, as energy efficiency has been found to be effective in countless ways.

“By saving electricity, we can also save lives,” said researcher David Abel. “There is a range of health benefits. It’s a bonus. We find there are extra health reasons to turn off a light.”

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