Acrylic monomer, acetone, nail polish — nail salons are notorious for their distinctive acrid odors. However, industrial hygienists and other health experts attest that bad-smelling air isn’t necessarily bad for you.

Indeed, the federal Occupational Health and Safety Agency (OSHA) and other government and private agencies have tested air quality in numerous nail salons in response both to public complaints and requests from salon professionals.

“We have a long history of complaints about nail salons in terms of odors,” says an industrial hygienist with OSHA, which has established permissible exposure levels (PELs) for most chemicals used as ingredients in nail products. PELs are established by determining the concentration of a chemical in the air that will cause ill health effects; OSHA then pads the concentration so that the PEL is lower than the concentration known to have adverse effects. According to the OSHA spokesperson, air samples from nail salons rarely exceed OSHA’s PELs for any one chemical.

“A strong smell of artificial nail products and acetone doesn’t mean the chemical levels in the air are a health concern,” agrees Chris Godwin, Ph.D., a research assistant for the Department of Environmental Health Sciences, School of Public Health, at the University of Michigan. According to Godwin, many ingredients used in nail products have a low odor threshold. In other words, they offend the nose long before they so much as hurt a hair on your head.

Air Quality: a Cloudy Issue

Don’t breathe a sigh of relief just yet, however.“Our PELs are high, and there are many different chemicals used in salons,” explains the OSHA spokesperson. While no single chemical exceeds its PEL, she says, the particular combination of products used in a salon may combine to create an air pollutant.

According to Publication 400 of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ department of labor and workforce development, division of occupational safety, the acrylates in acrylic monomers as well as the volatile organic solvents (VOCs) in polishes and other nail products, can irritate the eyes, nose, throat, and lungs. Research also has associated nail product ingredients with occupational asthma. At high exposure levels — much, much higher than found in the salon environment — some of these same chemicals may adversely affect the nervous and reproductive systems.

But Godwin and other air quality experts agree that offensive odor, headaches, and skin irritation are by far the most significant concern for nail techs. Nor are salons unique in terms of endangered indoor air quality (IAQ). “The majority of health problems fall under the definition of ‘sick building syndrome,’” Godwin explains. Sick building syndrome is a term used to describe a group of non-specific health complaints — such as headaches, poor concentration, fatigue, dry, itchy skin, burning, itchy eyes, nausea, a hoarse voice, and cough — that can’t be linked to a particular cause.

“In sick building syndrome situations, you’ll have [people who suffer from] four to five of those symptoms with no obvious cause.” In such situations, he says, air testing doesn’t reveal elevated levels of chemicals and the fresh air supply is adequate.

Currently, concern about IAQ outpaces knowledge about it. In addition to the innumerable factors that can impact air quality in general, Godwin explains that indoor environments are as individually unique as people. In other words, the same-sized salon with the same number of nail techs servicing the same number of clients with the same products may cause health complaints in nail techs in one of the locations but not the other. Likewise, some people are more sensitive to poor air quality just as others are more vulnerable to, say, cold viruses.

Even so, experts urge salon owners to take IAQ seriously whether or not nail techs or clients complain of symptoms. “Salons use many different products, so you have to consider that it’s not just the raw chemicals in the air, but the chemical reactions that can occur,” asserts Nellie Brown, a certified industrial hygienist and statewide director of the workplace health and safety program at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations in New York.

Brown, who has studied salon industry health concerns for almost 20 years, advises owners and nail techs to take steps to ensure good air quality regardless of odor levels or complaints of symptoms. To minimize chemicals in the air, she advises starting at the source.

“Follow the general idea of a hierarchy of [air quality] controls: source control of pollutants, ventilation, then personal protection,” Brown says. Start by evaluating work habits and creating a “healthy air” checklist: Cap product containers tightly when not in use, use pump dispensers or dappen dishes for liquid products, and use covered trash cans and change the plastic liners regularly.

Filing dust is another significant salon air contaminant. If any nail techs in your salon use a file or drill for anything more than smoothing and buffing the nail surface, diplomatically make them aware of the connection between air quality and filing dust. Also be prepared to provide training to refine sculpting skills so that less filing is required.

[PAGEBREAK]Clear the Air

Even as you implement “clean air” work habits, IAQ experts advise evaluating the salon’s HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) system to ensure an adequate, well-distributed supply of fresh air. In Brown’s opinion, good general ventilation will remove most chemicals and airborne particulates.

The problem is, “good” air is as intangible as “bad.”Most of us measure air quality by personal comfort, but the EPA emphasizes that temperature and humidity are only two — and the least important two, at that — aspects of ventilation. “Ventilation is actually a combination of processes which results in the supply and removal of air from inside a building,” states the agency’s fact sheet, “Ventilation and Air Quality in Offices.” To ensure good IAQ, the HVAC system must draw in an adequate amount of fresh air from the outside, “condition” it in terms of the desired temperature and humidity, then effectively mix and distribute it throughout the space. Finally, what comes in must go out, which means exhausting some of the mix.

The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) recommends salon HVAC systems deliver a minimum of 25 cubic feet per minute (cfm) of fresh air for each person in the space. However, industrial hygienists emphasize that adhering to the guidelines doesn’t guarantee healthy air. For one, Brown says, ASHRAE’s salon recommendation is based on oxygen and carbon dioxide levels for an environment in which workers are engaged in light-to-medium physical activity, but it doesn’t factor in the chemicals used in a salon. The EPA also cites uneven air distribution or insufficient exhaust as equally important factors in clean indoor air.

“Lots of [business owners] rely on the HVAC system, but they need to realize that the system might just recirculate air rather than replace it,” agrees OSHA’s industrial hygienist.

OSHA recommends salon owners have their HVAC system evaluated by an experienced ventilation engineer. To that end, OSHA offers no-risk evaluations and consultations free to businesses. If the OSHA consultant identifies air quality problems, they don’t share the information with OSHA’s enforcement arm. “They’re not going to report your business to federal OSHA or impose penalties,” assures OSHA’s spokesperson.

Nor does improving salon air quality necessarily require expensive replacement or upgrade of your HVAC system. The engineer may be able to adjust the air flow or recommend low-cost changes. For example, increasing air flow may be as simple as sealing leaky ductwork with duct tape (and in that case would result in lower heating and cooling bills). Likewise, complaints from neighboring businesses may be soothed by sealing openings in the ceiling and cracks in the wall. In buildings with shared HVAC, the salon may have to install an independent HVAC system, but the option often is still less costly than relocating.

Also ask your HVAC consultant to evaluate the system layout. Godwin, for example, cites buildings where the air intake pipe was located right next to the exhaust outlet or pulling air from a loading dock area where trucks sat with motors idling. “In situations like that you can’t really consider it ‘fresh’ air,” he says.

Pay close attention to the locations of supply and exhaust vents inside as well, Brown advises. “You want air to come down from above or behind you and leave in front,” she says. This creates the ideal setup of pushing fresh air through the breathing zone and then down where it mixes with heavier contaminants and flushes them out through the exhaust.”

Local exhaust systems are most effective when they vent contaminated air to the outside. They also should pull air from below or the side (upward suction pulls contaminants through the breathing zones.)

Local exhaust systems are most effective when they vent contaminated air to the outside. They also should pull air from below or the side (upward suction pulls contaminants through the breathing zones.)

Concentrate Your Efforts

Experts agree that ventilation and controlling the source of irritants are the first-line defenders of air quality. However, some salons — particularly ones with high client volume or that use nail drills — may require additional measures to assure good IAQ.

Brown names filing dust as both a inhalation concern as well as a skin irritant. “It gets in the eyes and lands on exposed skin — especially around the collar, in cleavage, and elbow creases,” she notes.

IAQ experts name local exhaust systems — which capture contaminants at their source — as the ideal supplement to general ventilation. These systems are most effective when they vent contaminated air to the outside. They also should pull air from below or the side — upward suction pulls contaminants through the breathing zones.

Some lab and safety supply companies sell local exhaust systems, but numerous salons have found it more cost-effective and esthetically pleasing to customize a system for their location. Maisie Dunbar, for example, worked with her general contractor and HVAC installer to design a local exhaust system when she opened M&M Nails & Wellness Center in Silver Spring, Md. It cost approximately $1,500 to cover four nail stations.

When exhausting outside isn’t an option, a two-step filtration system — one filter that removes airborne particulates and another that removes chemicals — may work. However, “This is possible only if the air cleaner contains special material, such as activated charcoal, to facilitate removal of harmful gases,” states the EPA. Brown also emphasizes that the filter must have an adequate efficiency rating and be replaced at the right frequency (which will vary by salon and nail tech). Motor speed and strength are other factors: If the air cleaner doesn’t draw sufficient air at an adequate speed, the system won’t do much more than run up the salon’s electric bill.

Rest assured that your efforts to improve air quality will be noted. Short-term health effects such as headaches and fatigue should disappear with a change of environment. What’s more, the drain to the salon’s bottom line in terms of lower employee productivity should be eased as well.

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Select Effective Coverage

Looking to minimize particulate inhalation? Nellie Brown says not to bother wearing a mask that doesn’t meet the National Institute of Safety and Health’s (NIOSH) minimum N95 certification. According to Brown, N95-certified masks block at least 95% of particulates smaller than 0.3 microns.

So small they aren’t even visible to the naked eye, particulates smaller than 0.3 microns are the real concern to health professionals. The human respiratory system is designed to filter out larger particles, but these smaller particles flow right past the human barrier and may settle deep in the lungs.

Most medical, lab, and safety supply companies sell N95 masks. Don’t be scared off if the first styles you find look like they belong in a research lab — just keep shopping around until you find one styled after a surgical mask. And size before you buy, Brown emphasizes, saying, “The mask needs to sit well on your face or you’ll lose the protection.” Personally, Brown prefers a mask with an exhalation valve, which prevents moisture buildup inside the mask.

 Healthy Air Checklist

• Cap product containers tightly when not in use.

• Use pump dispensers or dappen dishes for liquid products, instead of working from large bottles.

• Use covered trash cans, empty the containers several times a day, and change the liners regularly.

• Wipe up spills immediately.