NYC Finally Nails It, Monitoring Air in Salons

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Screen Shot 2015-09-30 at 12.58.56 PMSomeone at City Hall in New York City must have taken a chemistry lesson, because they've apparently learned how to distinguish between harmful chemicals and nonsense like salt and sugar.

Let's just call this a "Big Gulp of Common Sense."

Rather than trying to impose a set of idiotic rules about the maximum size of a soda, or trying to crack down on how much salt is in your food both of these courtesy of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and the latter, from current Mayor De Blasio), the big city is smartly taking steps to protect nail salon workers from chronic exposure to a number of solvents. Finally, a worthy crusade.

As reported in Wednesday's New York Times, a pilot program that was initiated by the public advocate s office will set up air sensors in 35 salons. The sensors, which will be attached to lamps, will measure the identity and exposure of some of the chemicals that are routinely used.

This initiative follows a Times investigation from last May which revealed the appalling work and living conditions of salon workers.

At the American Council, we regularly dispel misplaced fears about occasional exposure to small amounts of common chemicals, such as BPA, phthalates, and parabens, which are not only safe in low quantities, but in high amounts as well.

Yet, this is different from chronic or occupational exposure to industrial solvents, such as toluene, which is not only used regularly, but is volatile, and will likely constantly exist in the air at these salons.

If you go into a chemistry lab, you will not smell toluene, even though it's used regularly. That's because chemists work in fume hoods, where vapors are drawn upwards and out of the building, rather than accumulating. (Toluene is the chemical that causes a very dangerous high from sniffing glue.)

Although well-intended, I think New York politicians should get a C in chemistry on this initiative because they're planning on measuring only two of three chemicals that should be on the list, while measuring another that should not.

This week's Times article says that the sensors will measure "chemicals associated with the most serious medical issues: toluene, dibutyl phthalate and formaldehyde," which is referred to the "toxic trio." However, the city is focusing on the wrong trio.

Chronic inhalation of substantial levels of toluene and formaldehyde is a bad idea by any measure. They are both volatile and will cause a host of systemic problems, and possibly cancer, for people who are constantly exposed to them.

But, dibutyl phthalate does not belong on this list. It's "toxicity" is based on very shaky experiments that involve feeding rats large doses of the chemical and observing sexual development. Additionally, the chemical is not very volatile, so there will be less of it in the air.

What they should measure instead is ethyl methacrylate, which is one of the two components of the plastic that becomes the artificial nail. It is volatile and rather nasty. You should not be inhaling it chronically, something that Scientific American described earlier this year.

Just for your enlightenment, here is the "toxic trio." The "safety diamonds" come from the vast database of chemicals that is kept by The National Fire Protection Association, which is used to alert those who respond to a fire or spill of the approximate risk of the chemical in question. The blue squares depict the health risk of the chemical.

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So, OK, they don't have the chemistry quite down, but at least they're trying. As Meatloaf once sung, "two out of three ain't bad."