Science & Technology

Canadian nail salon workers exposed to high levels of hazardous chemicals

Imagine a workplace where employees are exposed to toxic chemicals on a regular basis. And imagine that for the majority of these chemicals, there is little, if any, information regarding their effects on human health. Now imagine that quite a few have been suspected to cause health problems such as cancer and reproductive issues.

This is the reality for employees in the nail care industry. You might have imagined a workplace this hazardous to be a waste collection centre or a chemical manufacturing company, but University of Toronto researchers Miriam Diamond, Victoria Arrandale, and Linh Nguyen found that nail salons have unexpectedly high levels of chemicals such as diethyl phthalate (DEP) and tris(1,3-dichloro-2-propyl)phosphate (TDCIPP). 

But, what are these substances, and where are they found?

In an interview with The McGill Tribune, Bernard Robaire, a professor and environmental toxicant researcher in McGill’s Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics, noted that the two main chemical families investigated in the study are phthalates and organophosphate esters. These chemicals appear in many places: Phthalates, for instance, are found in many everyday products and can be added to materials such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC) to make them more pliable.  

“The thing that makes lipsticks nice and glossy? Those are phthalates. When you walk into a new car, that new car smell is from phthalates,” Robaire explained.

Organophosphate esters (OPEs), such as TDCIPP, are another class of chemicals found in products ranging from pesticides to flame retardant materials, like furniture. 

While these chemicals are ubiquitous, nail salon technicians are exposed to high concentrations for long periods of time. Diamond and co-authors focussed on this group in their study, in collaboration with the Parkdale Queen West Community Health Centre and Toronto’s Healthy Nail Salons Network. They found that nail salon workers’ exposure in the workplace was up to 30 times higher than exposure in homes. 

The vast majority of nail salon workers are immigrant women, particularly of Asian descent. One study from the University of California at Los Angeles found that out of all the nail salon workers surveyed across the U.S., 81 per cent were female and 79 per cent were foreign-born, with nearly three-quarters of all immigrant workers listing Vietnam as their place of birth. The results of this study connect to a broader pattern of environmental racism within the industry, with administrative carelessness leading to inadequate protections and policies that disproportionately expose marginalized people to life-threatening toxicants in the workplace. 

“So then comes the question, if we’re exposed to [these chemicals], at what dose would we have to be exposed for them to have a toxic effect?” Robaire said. 

The Robaire and Hales team at McGill have published numerous papers that suggest mechanisms by which phthalates, OPEs, and other plasticizers may induce toxicity. Their research, along with other correlational studies, provide evidence that exposure to these chemicals at high enough levels could induce toxic effects on one’s nervous, reproductive, or immune systems. These effects are particularly worrisome for nail salon workers who may be pregnant or considering having children.

But nearly all of these studies are done in cell lines and animal models, with very few human epidemiological studies. Health Canada and other regulatory agencies currently require a high burden of proof to demonstrate that each of these individual chemicals are toxic at environmentally relevant levels. According to Robaire, this link is very difficult to prove. 

For example, the harmful effects of bisphenol A (BPA) were known for decades before Canada became the first country to formally declare it a harmful substance. Only then did Health Canada consider that there was sufficient evidence linking exposure to toxic health outcomes. However, Robaire’s team has found that substitutes for BPA may be even more toxic than the chemicals they replaced. Fortunately, Health Canada is considering changing their approach by regulating families of chemicals rather than one at a time. According to Robaire, change also needs to happen through government officials, scientists, and industry representatives from around the world to reduce human exposure to toxic chemicals.

Nail salon workers want these changes as well: Many have begun forming groups, such as the Nail Salon Workers Project, that call out the negative health impacts of working in nail salons and advocate for better work environments.

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