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The unvarnished truth about manicurists’ toxic exposure at work

The New York Times just published a fascinating series about the work lives of manicurists and nail salon workers in New York City, the No. 1 U.S. metro area in terms of nail salons per capita. We like our gorgeous nails in New Jersey, too, though, and the job doesn’t differ based on geography. Are your dazzling fingertips endangering workers?

Workplace safety is the employer’s responsibility. There are special challenges in hazard-prone industries, but most people probably didn’t think of nail salons as particularly dangerous until reading the Times piece. Yet it’s certainly true that salon workers can be exposed to toxic chemicals all day, every day, for decades.

The long-term effects of constant exposure to toluene, formaldehyde, and dibutyl phthalate in nail products

According to OSHA, there are around a dozen hazardous chemicals common in nail salons, many of which are absorbed through the skin or by breathing. Safety experts refer to three ubiquitous nail-salon chemicals — toluene, formaldehyde, and dibutyl phthalate — as the “toxic trio.”

Are they safe? It’s hard to say. Cosmetics, including nail treatments, are regulated under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act and are prohibited from containing chemicals that are hazardous to human health. However, cosmetics manufacturers typically don’t have to submit their products to the FDA for pre-market approval.

Few useful chemical safety studies have been performed on these products, the Times says. Those that do exist were typically meant to ensure they’re safe for the individual wearer, not the salon worker. Yet salon workers are exposed to a greater number of potentially dangerous chemicals for thousands of hours a year.

The industry acknowledges that painful skin conditions and respiratory issues are common, but it’s reluctant to admit the possibility of serious or even long-term health effects. Yet, according to OSHA, these chemicals can not only cause immediate illness but it can also build up over time, causing more significant damage — including potential reproductive harm.

Sadly, an OSHA safety page explaining that toluene might cause reproductive harm doesn’t have nearly the impact of a single manicurist’s bewildered grief over her four unexplained miscarriages. Vulnerable workers like these, however, often have limited resources to change jobs or to insist on better safety practices.

If you’ve been sickened or injured by exposure to chemicals at work, a workers’ compensation claim may make a difference. Other compensation options may be available, as well.