What do manis and pedis have to do with reproductive health? And how does this work affect the women who do your nails?
If you’ve ever entered or even passed by a nail salon, you probably noticed a smell that blasts your nostrils. If you stay for a treatment, the smell slowly dissipates while you pamper your fingers and toes.
What you are smelling is toxins. Nail salon technicians also get used to the smell – olfactory blindness – as they handle cosmetic products that are harmful to their skin, their respiratory systems and their reproductive health.
I recently trained a group of nail salon technicians as peer educators. They will teach other workers about the reproductive health effects of the toxic products they use.
The Toronto Healthy Nail Salon Network, an association of nail salon technicians and health advocates, invited me to continue the peer education work they started last year. Taking the lead from advocates in the US, they invited a trainer to arm nail salon workers with information, gloves and cream, and to go forth into nail salons across the city and teach their sister workers about the effects on their skin of the chemicals they use.
Now skin is one thing; reproductive health is another. It is easy enough to see reddened, cracked fingers and hands. It is another to make the connection between these products and adverse effects on pregnancies, fetal and children’s health.
I began preparing my workshops nearly a year ago. As time went on, I realized that not only did I have to learn about these chemicals and their effects, I also had to raise workers’ comfort level talking about sexuality (easy enough), explain birth control methods available in Canada (no problem), walk them through the available research on the potential effects on their reproductive systems (a challenging slog) and teach them how to pass on all of the above to their peers.
One of the main challenges is to offer information which is not yet definitive. In other words, the research is clear about the potential effects of these toxins, but little research has been done on nail salon technicians themselves.
The only possible message: there is a problem; and workers need to try to reduce their risks in the workplace.
The “toxic trio”
The nail polishes you – and they – use may contain solvents including the “toxic trio” (formaldehyde, toluene, and dibutyl phthalate).
Toluene is an endocrine disruptor.
We pored over an illustration of the endocrine system and learned that breathing in high levels in pregnancy can cause birth defects, slow growth and retard mental abilities of offspring. There is also an increased risk of reduced fertility and spontaneous abortion.
Dibutyl phthalate is also an endocrine disruptor. Research on mice has shown female reproductive toxicity (birth defects and reduced birth weight), problems in male genital development and potential permanent effects on development of the central nervous system.
You can read more here.
Many workers in nail salons have heard stories about friends who had trouble getting pregnant or who had multiple miscarriages. Ideally, nail salon technicians should be able to plan their pregnancies for times when they are not working. But one of the reasons they work in these risky entry level jobs is because they have to. New immigrants often have few choices. They need the money.
There are other issues. One peer educator asked, “How do I know how long these toxins stay in my body?”
I explained the precautionary principle . If the women they see want to plan their pregnancies, these peers can now knowledgeably discuss all the birth control methods available, as well as access to abortion. I suggested that if it was at all possible, they might encourage these women to consider planning a pregnancy for a time when they were not working in a nail salon.
I enjoyed asking the peers about the birth control methods they had used in their home countries of Viet Nam and China. Of course, it was especially interesting to hear about the one child policy in China as well as attitudes towards abortion. In their anonymous written questions, like most women, they wanted to know about the safety of birth control pills and which was the best method (one that works and suits you best). They also wanted to know about the availability and cost of abortion. The most difficult question was how to demonstrate the effects of toxins on women’s reproductive systems. Again, all they can really offer is risk reduction.
Reduce the risk
When they go out to speak with nail technicians in salons across the city, they will have brochures in Vietnamese and Chinese which suggest the following:
- Don’t use products with formaldehyde.
- Don’t use nail polish removers with acetone.
- Don’t use nail polish thinners with toluene.
They will further recommend to nail salon technicians:
- close bottles when you are not using them
- put garbage with chemicals in a closed bag
- throw the bag in a garbage with a lid
- close the lid and keep it closed
- try to take work breaks away from your work station
- go outside for fresh air if you can
- open doors and windows and use fans to increase air circulation
- do not eat at your work station or near chemicals
- do not wear jewelry where chemicals and water can stay
- wash your clothes when you get home
And what about you? If you love your fingernail and toenail polish, or your artificial nails, you have two options: do it at home with less toxic products, keeping your windows open; or encourage your local nail salon to adopt the risk reduction strategies above. If more patrons insist on safer working conditions, it will increase the safety for all.