University of Toronto study shows high level of chemical exposure for nail salon workers

Researchers and advocates are calling for better working conditions for nail technicians, after a new study found concerning levels of chemicals in nail salons. Faiza Amin on the health concerns for workers, and the measures to help them.

By Faiza Amin and Meredith Bond

A new study from the University of Toronto on chemical levels in nail salons has prompted its authors to call for better working conditions for nail technicians.

The research study found a “surprisingly high” volume of chemicals that could be harmful to those who are exposed for a long period of time at discount salons in downtown Toronto. The chemicals were identified as flame retardants and plasticizers.

It was conducted in partnership with the Parkdale Queen West Community Health Centre and the Healthy Nail Salons Network

The professors who conducted the study say the levels of flame retardants were almost 30 times higher than what was calculated in an e-waste facility and over 100 times higher than what is found in the average home.

Co-author of the study Victoria Arrandale said one of the key issues with these chemicals is that some of the products being used in nail salons are exempt from labeling requirements because of the small volume in the bottles.

“The current approach to regulating chemicals doesn’t consider that these personal care products of small volume ended up in workplaces. It assumes that they end up in our homes and we use them intermittently. And so, in these nail salons, many of the products being used weren’t considered as workplace chemicals and so I think that needs to be better considered in our approach to regulation.”

Flame retardants, one of the chemicals found, are used to slow the spread of fire, co-author and Professor Miriam Diamond tells CityNews.

“There’s a lot of controversy about flame retardants. They’re added to meet flammability standards, but there’s very little, if any, data to show that adding flame retardants to products actually brings a safety benefit,” said Diamond. “Under control testing, it shows that adding flame retardants to a material can slow the spread of fire but adding flame retardant material also increases the smoke that’s produced. Most people die in fires from smoke inhalation.”

Diamond said the effects on those who are exposed to these chemicals can be quite dangerous. The study says exposure to these chemicals has been associated with a higher risk of endometriosis and decreased female fertility.

“The adverse effects are [also] particularly seen through the fetus that can be exposed, so during fetal development, kids who are born to moms who are exposed to these chemicals,” explained Diamond. “The aftereffects can include changes to the male reproductive system, and that can include everything from lower fertility to abnormalities in the male reproductive system.”

Jackie Liang, a nail technician who has worked for over a decade, came to Canada in 2007 and has since worked in several neighbourhoods across the GTA in nail salons.

Liang is also a community worker for the Parkdale Queen West Community Health Centre and has worked as an advocate for nail technicians.

“I didn’t have an education here and I immigrated by myself. So, I had to find a job to support myself. And the nail job was easy to get. You can make money and it does not require any education, just training and then you can work,” Liang told CityNews.

Liang said she has experienced skin rashes from using the products along with other technicians. She also said technicians worry about their reproductive health.

“This is very scary thing because most of the time, technicians are women and they are in the reproductive age,” said Liang. “Some technicians who plan pregnancy will really worry and they will leave this sector. They can’t do this job so they just stop, but most can’t because of financial pressure.”

She said she believes most nail technicians are aware they work with harmful chemicals. “There’s nothing we can change. We don’t think we have the power to change this.”

Liang tells CityNews she was very appreciative of the work conducted by Diamond and Arrandale. “I think it gives us hope and at least have some people pay attention to us so they know the story behind the beauty, the workers’ story. And I hope this is an opportunity for some change, like better regulations and improving the ventilation system.”

Diamond is calling on the Ministry of Labour to do more to protect these workers and Health Canada, which runs the Canadian Chemicals Management Plan, to review these chemicals to potentially add them to the Cosmetic Hotlist, a list of chemicals restricted or prohibited for use in cosmetics.

The professor explains they found the hotlist does work to protect these technicians. After the plasticizer DEHP was added to this list in 2009, there were not elevated levels of the chemical found in nail salons. “We know that this chemical had been used in the past for products like nail polishes.”

However, she said this cannot be done hastily. “You have to know what the replacements are now. Often, you take one chemical with relatively well-known health risks and replace it with another chemical for which that health risks are poorly understood. And sometimes those health risks become evident years later.”

“Under the chemicals management plan, there’s discussion of looking at alternatives so an alternatives assessment. So, if I want to get rid of one chemical, let’s do an assessment of how its function could be replaced,” explained Diamond.

The Ministry of Labour tells CityNews they funded this study through the Research Opportunity Program and are currently reviewing the results.

“The Ministry conducts regular reviews and updates of our standards and guidelines to ensure Ontario remains a leader in occupational health and safety,” read a statement.

Health Canada said all cosmetics must meet the requirements of the Food and Drugs Act and the Cosmetic Regulations and are subject to the Canadian Environmental Protection Act but did not comment any further on this study.

Diamond noted there is a bill that was recently introduced to the Senate that would reform the Canadian Environmental Protections Act that includes oversight of some of the harmful chemicals mentioned in their study.

These results are the first of multiple studies that are set to come out by these researchers on hazards in nail salons, including information about acetone commonly used in salons and the ergonomics of doing nails for hours on end.

“There is a need for more research to understand sources and to understand how we can best prevent exposure. But I also think that we need to build awareness and knowledge about these potential hazards and nail salons and other personal care settings among the community,” added Arrandale.

“Many nail salon workers belong to a vulnerable population. Many of the workers are immigrants, the workers are women and women are typically more vulnerable. But being an immigrant woman certainly leads to greater vulnerability,” said Diamond.

“I think the first line of action is that industry takes a more proactive role in ensuring that safe products are on our shelves. So it’s everything from the chemical manufacturers to the cosmetics and personal care product formulators to the retailers … so it’s not just government. It’s industry as well.”

Diamond adds there is no risk to the public who go into these nail salons for appointments. “We need to be clear the hazard is minimal to customers.”

“This research is so important because I believe that every Canadian has the right to a safe environment,” shared Diamond. “A safe working environment, a safe place to live, safe food, safe air to breathe and safe water to drink. I do not believe it’s acceptable for nail salon technicians to be exposed to elevated levels of chemicals that could pose a harm to them.”

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