There are very few times in a woman’s life when she thinks more about her health than when she is pregnant. Most women are willing to make extraordinary sacrifices to ensure that their children will have every benefit a mother can provide. Is giving up your job as a nail technician with its daily exposure to certain chemicals a sacrifice you need to make?

“While studies have shown that women who have high levels of exposure to chemicals also have the greatest level of risk for spontaneous abortions, when precautions were taken to limit exposure, the risks were not found to be different than the background expected risks such as age or family history,” says Karen Filkins, M.D., director of reproductive genetics at West Penn Hospital in Pittsburgh, Pa. “It’s important to keep in mind that approximately 15% of all established pregnancies naturally end in spontaneous abortion. This miscarriage rate is attributable to things that have nothing to do with your job. Of course, you will still want to take proper precautions to limit your exposure to potentially toxic substances while you’re pregnant,” she adds.


The State of Research

Unfortunately, little is known definitively about the effects of chemicals at the low levels of exposure typical in a salon environment. In very high concentrations, some of the chemicals used in the salon have been linked with a higher incidence of miscarriage, congenital malformations, and other pregnancy complications; however, most of these studies have been done either on laboratory animals or on people with much higher exposure levels than nail technicians have.No negative conclusions can be drawn from this research about the relative safety of salon work, says Doug Schoon, director of research and development for Creative Nail Design Systems.


For example, there have been studies done on laboratory animals that have linked some salon chemicals with birth defects or other abnormalities, but the levels that lab animals were exposed to were hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of times higher than what a nail technician is exposed to working in the salon. At these high levels, methacrylates, a family of chemicals used primarily in the plastics industry and common to nail acrylic, were shown to cause fetal deformities in chickens and rats, but studies of women working in the plastics industry, where the exposure to methacrylates is much higher than in the salon, did not show any increase in miscarriages or birth defects.


Long-term overexposure to the chemical toluene has been associated with mental retardation and physical deformities similar to those that can be caused by alcohol consumption during pregnancy. These deformities resulted when pregnant women sniffed toluene to get high; they were not caused by occupational exposure. Although toluene is found in some nail polishes, there has never been a single reported case of birth defects associated with the small quantities of the chemical present in the salon, says Schoon.


“An independent study in California found the levels of toluene in nail products to be a thousand times below what is considered a safe level according to federal guidelines. It’s impossible to become overexposed when dealing with these quantities [in nail polish],” says Schoon.


Work Study

A March 1994 study appearing in Epidemiology magazine titled “Spontaneous Abortions Among Cosmetologists” does rate some concern on the part of nail technicians.Unlike previous studies, the subjects were working cosmetologists. The analysis focused on 96 cosmetologists who had had a spontaneous abortion and 547 cosmetologists who had had a single live birth and who worked either full-time in cosmetology or in other jobs during the first trimester of pregnancy.


The researchers found associations between spontaneous abortion and the number of hours worked per day in cosmetology, the number of chemical services performed per week, use of formaldehyde-based disinfectants, and work in salons where nail sculpting was performed by other employees. The study did not prove that there was an increased risk based on exposure to nail sculpting; it only suggested a possible association. Interestingly, there was no association found between spontaneous abortions and manicuring in general. Additionally,when the cosmetologists wore gloves, a protective effect was seen.


What this study failed to take into account, says Schoon, is factors such as smoking and drinking, which are much more likely causes of early miscarriage.“It’s important to keep in mind that smoking and drinking are hundreds, if not thousands, of times more dangerous to the fetus than any substance found in the salon.Which is not to say you shouldn’t make every effort to work safely,” he says.


Chemical Concerns

In order to take adequate precautions, a pregnant nail technician must first understand which chemicals may pose a threat to her and her baby’s health. While you certainly must be careful about exposure to all chemicals, volatile organic solvents (VOCs) warrant the greatest concern. “Anything in nail salons that will vaporize is a VOC. Organic means it contains carbon, which is just about everything except product bottles and the grit on files. Anything vaporizing is volatile,” says Schoon.


Most of the products used by nail technicians — nail dehydrators, primers, acrylic monomers, wrap adhesives, activators, nail polish, and polish remover — are applied wet, then dry on the nail. This process is possible because of the presence of volatile organic solvents. Nail products have so much odor because they contain many VOCs that evaporate into the air. But don’t judge a product’s safety by its odor. There are products that produce no smell but do produce vapors that are more dangerous than those in stronger-smelling products.


Don’t Inhale

Inhalation is the primary route that vapors and dust take into your body. Product can also be absorbed through the skin or through your digestive system if you accidentally eat it. Obviously you don’t intentionally make a meal of your products, but it’s easy, for example, to get filing dust in your coffee or get monomer on your fingers and then pick up a potato chip and pop it into your mouth.


Experts agree that the most important action a pregnant nail technician can take is to assure that her work environment is adequately ventilated. The best way to keep your breathing zone (the one- to two-foot area around your mouth and nose) clean is to wear a dust mask and to use a local exhaust ventilation system that pulls air away from your work area and vents it to the outside.


A local exhaust system is recommended over other adjunct systems because once the air is vented out of the salon, you don’t have to worry about it anymore. With systems that filter the air, there are too many variables that can cause the system to function poorly [For more information on local exhaust systems, see Something in the Air?, NAILS, April 1996].


While local exhaust is the most effective means of guaranteeing clean air, there are less-expensive options, says Filkins. “At the very least, an open window or door with a fan blowing vapors away from you is a positive change,” says Filkins. “You want to be in a large room with an open area because that allows better circulation.” Schoon disagrees: “We don’t want circulation, we want ventilation,” he says. “A ventilation system that removes vapors from the air is a far better solution than simply swirling vapors around the room so that everyone gets to breathe them.”


Precautionary Measures

Other precautions for pregnant nail technicians include wearing gloves that act as a barrier to the chemicals you use, capping bottles tightly when not in use, and using only small amounts of product in dappen dishes instead of working from large bottles.


Technicians should wipe up spills immediately, use closed trash containers so that product doesn’t evaporate into the air, and empty the containers several times a day. If you get product on your skin, stop immediately and wash it off. Of course, wash your hands before eating or drinking (and don’t eat or drink at your workstation).


Remember also to take frequent breaks to get fresh air, and pay special attention to symptoms such as nausea, headaches, or dizziness, especially if the symptoms seem to occur mainly during work hours. Make sure to report these symptoms to your doctor.


Putting It in Perspective

All the medical, chemical, and workplace hazard experts NAILS consulted agree that a pregnant nail technician can continue working in the salon unless she is experiencing other medical problems not related to the salon environment or she is unwilling to work safely. However, everyone emphasizes that while there is no information showing that it’s unsafe to continue working with nail products, there’s not enough information to say it’s completely safe, either. “We always weigh risks and benefits throughout life,” says Filkins. “Pregnancy adds the complication of not just thinking about risks and benefits to yourself, but risks and benefits to someone else linked to you.”


If you have concerns about your level of exposure to chemicals you might want to contact a Teratogen Information Service in your area (check the government listings in your phone book under “public health”). The Pregnancy Environmental Hotline, (617) 466- 8474, also has information on pregnancy and chemical exposure.

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