Nail technicians are exposed to dangerously high levels of chemicals thought to cause cancer, research suggests.
Scientists studied six salons and found their air contained formaldehyde and other toxic compounds.
Concentrations were beyond what is deemed safe to avoid several forms of cancer, including squamous cell carcinoma, Hodgkin’s lymphoma and leukaemia.
And exposure to these chemicals over 20 years could raise a technician’s cancer risk by up to 100 times, the researchers claim.
They warn this prolonged exposure may damage a beautician’s health as much as working an at oil refinery or garage.
Studies suggest these employees are at risk of asbestos exposure, as well as cancer of the stomach, oesophagus and lungs.
The study of salons was carried out by the University of Colorado and led by Dr Lupita Montoya.
Dr Montoya has been curious about the effects of airborne chemicals in nail salons ever since a visit to a nail bar a decade ago left her struck by its pungent smell.
She worried the confined space and poor ventilation would expose workers to circulating chemicals, and tried for years to investigate the long-term health consequences nail technicians may face.
However, she soon discovered more than 90 per cent of nail salons are small businesses.
They therefore rarely have the resources to enforce staff health and safety practices, and declined to take part in the experiment.
But in 2017, Ms Montoya and her team convinced six salons in Colorado to participate on the condition of anonymity.
They measured the levels of the chemicals formaldehyde, benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene in these salons over 18 months.
The nail technicians’ cancer risk was then determined according to thresholds set by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Results – published in the journal Environmental Pollution – revealed the salons’ formaldehyde concentrations ranged from 5.32 to 20.6micrograms (μg) per cubic metre across the six salons. One microgram is equivalent to 0.001mg.
A cubic metre is commonly used to express the concentration of a chemical in a volume of air. The volume is calculated according to a given metre in height, length and width.
This formaldehyde exposure exceeds the EPA’s minimal risk level for squamous cell carcinoma, nasopharyngeal cancer, Hodgkin’s lymphoma and leukaemia.
The EPA estimates if an individual were to continuously inhale air containing formaldehyde at an average of 8μg per cubic metre, they would have around a one in ten thousand increased risk of cancer.
And one salon also exceeded the exposure limit set by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
Benzene exposure levels varied from 3.13 to 51.8μg per cubic metre, which also exceeds the EPA’s minimal risk for leukaemia.
Toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene concentrations were also high but of less concern.
The researchers claim the chemical concentrations nail technicians are exposed to is comparable to those of oil-refinery or auto-garage workers.
Mechanics have been found to have an increased risk of the cancer mesothelioma due to asbestos often lurking in clutches and breaks.
And those employed at oil refineries may have worse odds of developing oesophageal, stomach and lung cancer, studies have suggested.
The nail technicians were also asked about any symptoms they had experienced, with 70 per cent complaining of headaches, skin damage or eye irritation.
The researchers stress, however, the average customer likely has nothing to worry about.
‘It really depends on how much time you spend in and around that environment,’ Dr Montoya said. ‘Customers spend a fraction of the time in salons that workers do.
‘Unless they have pretty severe allergies or asthma, there’s not much for customers to be concerned about.’
The researchers believe placing specially-treated wood or coal in nail salons could ‘absorb’ these airborne chemicals via ‘passive diffusion’.
It would take a long time to have an effect, however, air jets could direct the polluted air towards the absorbent material.
‘We’ve seen high rates of [chemical] removal with this method in controlled lab settings – nearly 100 per cent,’ Dr Montoya said. ‘We’re still optimising it for the field, where conditions are more unpredictable’.
The researchers even hope to create artwork that contains these absorbent materials and can be hung in nail salons.
‘These materials can be beautiful, affordable and effective,’ Dr Montoya said.