Nail salons in Australia are poorly regulated and workers are being exposed to serious health risks from the toxic chemicals used on customers, say experts.
“They’re calling it ‘the new asbestos’,” said Rosalie Osman, part-owner of the Super Rad Nail Sisters nail-art salon in Melbourne.
The fumes given off from nail polish are similar to those that car painters are exposed to, but the safety standards for each job are applied differently.
While some nail salons use polishes that avoid five harmful ingredients, many don’t.
The so-called ‘Toxic Trio’ of formaldehyde, or its derivatives dibutyl phthalate and toluene are known to cause birth defects, cancer and respiratory problems.
Melbourne University researcher Dr Anne Steinemann, an internationally-recognised expert in pollutants, said repeated, low exposure to those chemcials “adds up”.
She urges regular monitoring of the health effects on workers at businesses which use the chemicals.
“What I’m really concerned about, is, yes, these are the hazards in nail salons, but I see a broader societal problem, and it’s around the world,” she said.
“These occupations where people are exposed to these types of chemicals, and they’re very similar types of hazardous chemicals, the workers can’t speak up or complain because they lose their jobs, and the regulations on the products and on the working environments aren’t adequate to protect them.”
Union representation in the beauty industry is patchy. One union representative said they deal with beauty workers on a case-by-case basis because there are so few members.
State-based occupational health laws put the onus on the employer and the employee to regulate their exposures to chemicals.
Worksafe Victoria’s last official document on the risk of nail polish to staff was a checklist released in 2001, the agency’s website shows.
“Poor ventilation or enclosed work places may result in abnormally high exposures,” the document warns. “In addition poor work practices where the face is positioned in close proximity to the substance during intricate work may also increase the risk of exposure.”
Nail technician courses are conducted by TAFE and private educators and include a 20-hour course which covers safety in the workplace.
Ms Osman’s training on the dangers of the chemicals in the products her industry uses was delivered by a representative of a company that makes safety equipment for the industry, she said.
The company makes tables with extraction fans to remove about two-thirds of the fumes and almost all the dust that can cause health problems if inhaled.
“I did the research afterwards and I was like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s really bad. We should really take care of that’. Especially when you think about, in the future when you want to have children, a lot of that stuff can cause birth defects and organ failure,” she said.
She said safety compliance varied between salons.
She said before she bought the extractor tables she was experiencing headaches, dizziness and fatigue from the fumes while working part-time on nails.
Other workers in the industry report experiencing rashes and long-term respiratory issues.