Nail salon employees’ risk of cancer may be up to 100 times higher than that of the general population, according to a new study.

Published in the Environmental Pollution journal, the study by the University of Colarado concluded that the “employees face increased health risks due to high levels of indoor airborne pollutants such as formaldehyde and benzene” – and that “working in a salon is akin to working at an oil refinery or an auto garage”.

The study, led University of Colarado professor Lupita Montoya, monitored volatile organic compound (VOC) levels in six Colorado nail salons for 18 months.

According to Professor Montoya, the study is among the first to illustrate the serious health risks in the industry where technicians “commonly work long hours and report symptoms such as headaches, respiratory difficulties and skin irritation”.

“The study provides some of the first hard evidence that these environments are dangerous for workers and that better policies need to be enacted to protect them,” she said.

Professor Montoya’s interest in researching airborne hazards in nail salons dates back nearly a decade when she visited a salon and was struck by “the pungent smell of open chemicals used in gel and acrylic nail applications.”

She attempted to set up field tests to study the long-term health impacts for workers exposed to such chemicals “day in and day out” but securing a location proved difficult as “fearing consequences, many (salons) declined to participate”.

However in 2017, four undergraduate students working with the professor used personal connections to help secure access to six salons for monitoring “on the condition of anonymity”.

During the study, the researchers measured known VOCs such as benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes (BTEX) along with formaldehyde.

They found formaldehyde levels “similar to those measured in other settings” but “higher-than-expected concentrations of harmful benzene, which has been linked to leukemia, in all six salons”.

They concluded that the lifetime cancer risk for some nail workers “was up to 100 times higher than baseline EPA-issued levels” – the risk of developing leukemia was 21- and 135-fold higher while the lifetime risk of developing squamous cell cancers of the nose and throat was 6-38 fold higher.

The researchers stress that the risk is for workers rather than clients in the nail salons as many reported “working an average of 52.5 hours per week” and some working upto 80 hours per week.

Professor Montoya said the observed levels of air pollution are unlikely to have any negative health effects on any but the most vulnerable customers, such as those who are pregnant or have serious asthma, as “customers spend a fraction of the time in salons that workers do”.

“Unless they have pretty severe allergies or asthma, there’s not much for customers to be concerned about,” she said.

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