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Study: Workers Are Exposed to Unsafe Levels of the Chemical Toluene
By Matt McMillen
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD
May 5, 2011 -- Harmful chemicals may be endangering the health of Vietnamese nail salon workers, according to a new study.
Researchers at the Cancer Prevention Institute of California and Asian Health Services report finding unsafe levels of toluene, a solvent linked to neurological, reproductive, and endocrine damage, and other chemicals, including one that has been banned by the FDA since 1974.
The study is published in the American Journal of Public Health.
The research team recruited 80 workers, all of whom were Vietnamese women, at 20 different salons -- half of them in Oakland, Calif. -- to participate in the study. Each of them wore a monitor attached to a shirt or coat collar. Over the course of each shift, the monitor would measure concentrations of toluene, ethyl acetate, and isopropyl acetate.
High Levels of Risky Chemical
The researchers found that the average toluene levels were 0.15 parts per million, nearly twice the amount recommended by the California Environmental Protection Agency for indoor air, according to the study.
In addition to the samples taken from the workers' monitors, they also measured the ambient air in three of the salons being studied. They found notable levels of methyl methacrylate, which has been banned for decades.
Finally, the salon workers were given a questionnaire in which they were asked to identify any health symptoms they had experienced while working. The most frequent complaints common among salon workers included irritation of the eyes, nose, throat, and skin, shortness of breath, nausea, and coughing.
"This really explains why we have been hearing from salon workers about the health problems that they have," study researcher Thu Quach, PhD, MPH, says of the Vietnamese women who make up most of the salon workforce in California.
While Quach's study focused on workers in California, reports of adverse health effects among Vietnamese salon workers have been a concern in other parts of the country, including the Pacific Northwest, Houston, and Boston.
"It's definitely a national issue," says Julia Liou, MPH, manager of the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative, an organization founded in 2005 to address the health and safety concerns among California salon workers. "We're concerned about their cumulative, chronic, and long-term health problems."
Nail salon workers may be at heightened risk of health problems because they are exposed to the chemicals on a daily basis. However, Quach points out, the toxins are in the nail care products, which means that customers are exposed as well, albeit to a much lesser extent.
In addition to the acute symptoms that salon workers suffer, Quach is concerned about potential long-term health risks.
"I'm really very interested in following the long term health outcomes of these women."