Deadly Nails

Give me your hand
as I mask my concerns,
sit back and relax
with worries about skin
as I remove old polish
(how we talk)
trim the nails,
and reproduce.
Buff the surfaces
we don’t know
push back cuticles
and cross our palms.
Let me apply the primer
with chemicals,
the acrylic
with toxins,
the colour
with compounds,
and waves of heat
that do not belong.
Give me your hand,
take a breath
take a photo.
Soon you will be gone
to share my craft,
and I’ll still be here
maintaining the finish.
Breathing the fumes.

A Nail technician files nails with a nail file (Image Credit: Marco Verch Professional Photographer, via flickr).

This poem is inspired by recent research, which has found unexpectedly high levels of hazardous chemicals in nail salons.

Public attention with regards to the hazards in nail salons has increased recently, likely because of the expansion of the industry and the perceived vulnerability of nail salon workers; most nail salon workers are women who often are immigrants and work in precarious employment. Nail salon workers are also potentially exposed to various hazardous chemicals including ortho-phthalate esters (phthalates) and organophosphate esters (OPEs) in the cosmetic and personal care products that are used in their workplace. These chemicals have been associated with negative health impacts, including both adverse neurological and reproductive effects. As such it is important to fully understand the extent to which people working in nail salons are exposed to these chemicals.

In this new study, researchers measured the occupational exposure to phthalates and OPEs for a selection of nail salon workers in Toronto. Salon workers were asked to wear an active air sampler, a silicone brooch, and a silicone wristband during their work shift, which were then used to measure their exposure to these chemicals. In analysing the results, exposures for some chemicals were found to be up to 30 times higher among nail salon workers relative to exposures in the home. In some cases they were even 10 times higher than levels found in e-waste handling facilities, an industry in which exposure to these harmful chemicals is more fully understood, and thus better regulated. Several of the chemicals found in the nail salons have some restrictions on their use under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. However, most of the chemicals are not explicitly regulated in Ontario workplaces. This study therefore highlights the need for government and product manufacturers to make safer personal care products and also provide safer spaces for workers and customers in the personal services sector.

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