Working Healthy

If You Can See It You Can’t Inhale It

Is the dust from filing on nails hazardous to your health? The experts don’t think so, and they suggest that technicians probably breathe far less dust than they think they do.

If you’re like most nail technicians whose business consists of at least some acrylic services, you end each day covered with a light, grainy film from accumulated filing dust. You’ve probably wondered if, besides being annoying and uncomfortable, this dust is also dangerous. Your concerns are understandable and shared by many nail technicians.

Unfortunately, none of the experts NAILS interviewed for this article could state with certainty that airborne nail filings and dust are not a health concern for all nail technicians. Research has not been done to determine the exact amount and size of the particles generated when filing on artificial nails. But based on what is known about airborne particles (solid material that is small enough and light enough to float in the air) in general and the fact that the human body is designed to prevent this dust from harming your respiratory system, the experts do not think the filings are a significant danger to a nail technician’s health. However, all experts recommend that nail technicians take preventative measures to protect themselves.

If You Can See It, It’s Not Dangerous

Unless you live in a glass bubble, you inhale airborne particles with each breath. Your respiratory system continually filters the air you breathe to remove airborne contaminants; it filters out everything from dust and mold to animal dander and smog. Workers in certain occupations are exposed to higher levels of airborne particles than are workers in other jobs. Farmers inhale dirt when then plow, drywallers inhale plaster dust when they sand walls, animal groomers inhale animal dander. Likewise, nail technicians can inhale airborne particles generated when they file – manually or electrically.

There are two kinds of airborne particles; respirable particles, which are particles light enough to remain in the air for more than 40 minutes and small enough to be inhaled easily; and nonrespirable particles, which are larger and too heavy to remain airborne for a long time. Non-respirable means the particles are too large to be carried in the lungs (they are trapped in the nose or throat if inhaled).

According to Rebert Phalen, Ph.D., most nail filings are probably non-respirable. “Filing produces larger particles, which are generally not capable of deeply penetrating the air passages of the lungs,” says Phalen, who is the director of the Air Pollution Health Effects Lab at the University of California at Irvine, College of Medicine. “When they are inhaled, particles produced by filing tend to deposit in the upper airways – the nose, the mouth, and the throat.” They almost never reach the lungs, he says.

Particles that are small enough to remain airborne and possibly be inhaled are not visible to the naked eye. In other words, says Will Forest, associate toxicologist for the Hazard Evaluation System Information Service of the California Department of Health Services, “If you can see it, you can’t inhale it.”

Explains Nellie Brown, western regional director of the chemical Hazard Information Program at Cornell University in Buffalo, N.Y., “Anything more than above five microns in diameter is difficult for the body to inhale [through the nose]. Even particles smaller than that can be filtered out before they reach the lungs.” Only particles smaller than about three microns can bypass the respiratory defenses of the nose, throat, and bronchial airways. Particles this size are very tiny: A human hair is 100 microns in diameter, a red blood cell seven microns. Though you may see a lot of particles on your table, it’s only the particles you can’t see that you should be worried about.

Although nail technicians inhale some filing dust, it’s probably less than they think. “It’s hard to inhale enough dust to constitute a health problem. Even if you inhale a lot of particles, they are very tiny and the overall amount is not high. If it’s a toxic material such as lead or asbestos, then even tiny amounts can be problematic. But if the particles being inhaled are not very toxic, it would take inhaling a lot of them to cause concern,” says Forest.

Likewise, forest says that when acrylic liquid and powder are combined, the chemicals polymerize and do not pose a health concern. “The chemical molecules have formed chains and the parts that could cause trouble are tied up with other molecules. For the most part, I believe they’re not a problem,” he says.

Amy Beasley Spencer, a chemical engineer for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, division of Physical Sciences and Engineering, recently conducted a study on vented manicure tables. Although airborne particles were not the focus of the study, Spencer says the amount of airborne particles drawn into the vented table was negligible.

“We measured all day and the lab couldn’t detect respirable or non-respirable particles,” says Spencer. “That doesn’t mean they’re not there and not causing problems. It depends on a person’s health background and her sensitivities to the chemicals being used.”

A nail technician who is allergic to a product is more likely to have health problems because her body is sensitized to the chemical and is likely to react to even minimal exposure. For a healthy nail technician who is not allergic to the chemicals she’s using, Phalen says there is little cause for concern. “Nail technicians aren’t dealing with massive exposures. The defenses of the respiratory system in a healthy person are robust and formidable,” he says.

Sophisticated Defense Systems

The human respiratory system has numerous defenses to prevent particles from reaching the deepest regions of the lungs, where they can cause damage. “The occupations that have had serious lung diseases are really very few. … I think the reason is that the defenses of our lungs were created, or have evolved, to deal with the conditions on earth,” says Phalen. “We have dust storms, mold pollution, shedding plants and animals, fog, volcanic eruptions, and fire. Our lungs are quite capable of dealing with substantial amounts of foreign matter.”

Particles that are five microns or larger never even reach the lungs. They are trapped in the sino-nasal region, which includes the nose, sinuses, throat, and trachea, and they are coughed, sneezed, or blown out through the nose, says Eileen Franko, industrial hygienist for the New York State Department of Health, bureau of occupational health.

Particles that are two to five microns in size usually become trapped in the tracheal/bronchial area, says Franko. Mucus and cilia (fine, hairlike tentacles that line the bronchial airways) on the tissue walls carry the foreign material to the throat, where it is usually swallowed and carried out of the body through the digestive tract without the person ever being aware of it.

Particles that are one of three microns in size can bypass the respiratory defenses and reach the deepest regions of the lungs where the alveoli (air sacs) exchange air and gases between the lungs and blood. The alveoli do not have mucus or cilia; instead they have macrophages, which are cells that break down and eat foreign objects, then transport the waste back up the bronchial tubes to the throat, where they are swallowed. Because macrophages are small and have a big job in keeping the alveoli clean (macrophage means “big eater”), foreign objects can remain in the air sacs a long time and can potentially damage the delicate tissues.

At the same time, the average person’s respiratory system is capable of handling “reasonable amounts” of dust, says Phalen. The question remains: Is the amount of dust nail technicians breathe “reasonable”?

Do you inhale nail filings?

Though no research has been done to determine how much dust nail technicians breathe, Brown cites several signs that indicate that you may be inhaling too much dust. “If someone is filing all day I should first ask her if the dust settles immediately or if it takes a few minutes. Does she notice she is breathing it in?”

“Is she noticing any irritation of the throat? Is she excessively thirsty because of dryness caused by the dust? Does she feel her lungs are producing excess mucus?” continues Brown.

Adds Franko, “If she is blowing her nose frequently and has a lot of foreign substances it is, she knows she is exposed to a lot of dust. If she has a runny nose of she sneezes or coughs a lot, that’s her body’s signal that her respiratory system is working too hard.”

If you are experiencing such symptoms as these, you probably are exposed to too much dust and need to limit your exposure. But even if you aren’t experiencing symptoms of overexposure, Phalen recommends making sure your salon’s ventilation is up to par anyway. “It’s prudent for nail technicians to limit their exposure as much as is practical. This means having adequate ventilation” he says. “Establish an air flow away from the breathing zone [the two-cubic-foot area around your nose].”

Brown recommends salon owners ensure their ventilation system complies with ventilation recommendations put out by the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE). ASHRAE recommends that the ventilation system in a beauty salon draw in 25 cubic feet of fresh air (not recycled air) per minute per person. In other words, a salon with five nail technicians should have a ventilation system that draws in 125 cubic feet of fresh air per minute.

In addition to following these recommendations, salons should consider installing local exhaust ventilation, which removes air contaminants at their source. Says Brown, “Local exhaust ventilation is the best. General room ventilation, even if it meets ASHRAE’s recommendations, is likely to just dilute the exposure. To remove contaminants from the air, you need to go beyond ASHRAE’s recommendations.”

Franko agrees: “[Local] exhaust is much better. If you’re filing someone’s nails in a place with no air movement, you’re much more likely to breathe in the filings.”

Franko warns against placing intake vents, which pull contaminated air out of the salon, directly above the workstation. “If the ventilation is right above the table then it’s pulling the particles right past the nose. You want the air to be pulled sideways or down, away from your nose.”

Doug Schoon, a chemist and director of Chemical Awareness Training Services in Irvine, Calif.. recommends that technicians wear dust masks while filing. “The simplest, cheapest, and easiest tool to use in this industry to prevent overexposure is a dust mask. The highest concentration of dust is in your breathing zone. Depending on how tightly it fits your face and whether you wear it each time you file, a good dust mask will reduce your chances of being overexposed to almost zero,” he says.

Phalen concurs. “A simple dust mask reduces your exposure 10% to 50% of what it would be without the mask. Anytime you can drop your dose, even by 50%, do it.

Phalen says that practicing good health habits in general helps prevent health problems that arise from inhaling nail filings and dust. “This includes avoiding smoking,” he says, because people who smoke more than 10 cigarettes a day get sick more easily and have more complication from inhaling dust. In many cases smoking seems to interfere with the defense system of the respiratory tract.

“Follow a balanced diet, get plenty of sleep, and prevent respiratory tract infections. When you have a respiratory infection, your lung defenses are almost completely destroyed.

“How do we prevent respiratory tract infections? Keep the areas where germ transmission can occur clean. Keep your hands clean, keep the bathroom clean, and have clients wash their hands. Wipe down door handles and light switches regularly with a disinfectant,” he continues.

Like many other health risks in the nail industry, it’s not so much the products themselves that pose a problem as how you work with them. With proper ventilation and good work habits, nail filings should bother you more for the layer of white dust they leave on your table than for any health problems they may cause the nose. You want the air to be pulled sideways or down, away from your nose.”

Doug Schoon, a chemist and director of Chemical Awareness Training Services in Irvine, Calif., recommends that technicians wear dust masks while filing. “The simplest, cheapest, and easiest tool to use in this industry to prevent overexposure is a dust mask. The highest concentration of dust is in your breathing zone. Depending on how tightly it fits your face and whether you wear it each time you file, a good dust mask will reduce your chances of being overexposed to almost zero,” he says.

Phalen concurs. “A simple dust mask reduces your exposure 10% to 50% of what it would be without the mask. Anytime you can drop your does, even by 50%, do it.”

Phalen says that practicing good health habits in general helps prevent health problems that arise from inhaling nail filings and dust. “This includes avoiding smoking,” he says, “because people who smoke more than 10 cigarettes a day get sick more easily and have more complications from inhaling dust. In many cases smoking seems to interfere with the defense system of the respiratory tract.

“Follow a balanced diet, get plenty of sleep, and prevent respiratory tract infections. When you have a respiratory infection, your lung defenses are almost completely destroyed.

“How do we prevent respiratory tract infections? Keep the areas where germ transmission can occur clean. Keep your hands clean, keep the bathroom clean, and have clients wash their hands. Wipe down door handles and light switches regularly with a disinfectant,” he continues.

Like many other health risks in the nail industry, it’s not so much the products themselves that pose a problem as how you work with them. With proper ventilation and good work habits, nail filings should bother you more for the layer of white dust they leave on your table than for any health problems they may cause.

 


Keywords:   ventilation  

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