A new study looks at the ugly side of salon manicures and pedicures: the occupational health and safety risks of salon workers.

Researchers at the Cancer Prevention Institute of California in Berkeley wanted to find out exactly what salon workers are inhaling all day long. Their study used a novel approach – personal air monitors – to track what manicurists were breathing in during several typical workdays. Researchers tracked the levels of three chemicals commonly found in nail polish, including toluene – a chemical included in a “toxic trio” found in nail products that have been blamed for adverse health effects. Eighty workers in 20 shops in Alameda County, half located in Oakland, participated in the study, which was conducted from November 2008 to June 2009.

Researchers found toluene levels that were higher than what is deemed safe for indoor air by the California EPA. Toluene is linked to endrocrine-disruption that can lead to certain cancers, including breast cancer.

Stationary monitors used in three salons detected methyl methacrylate, a compound that has been banned from nail products since 1974.

Dr. Thu Quach, the study’s lead researcher, said the presence of methyl methacrylate in several nail shops is “of great concern” because workers were exposed at higher levels than they should be indoors to a chemical that causes asthma and skin rashes. Stationary monitors also showed total levels of volatile organic compounds in the air to be higher than levels recommended by the California EPA for indoor air.

The findings suggest that workplace exposure levels set by the state may need to be updated to better protect nail salon worker health, said Quach, adding that the state needs to take into account “synergistic” effects of chemicals and acute health effects, such as headaches, breathing problems, irritations.

A third of the study participants reported acute health symptoms after they began working in the nail industry.

Quach was scheduled to testify May 18 at a congressional briefing in Washington, D.C., on toxic exposures for workers in the beauty industry. In addition to nail products, attention has focused on toxic chemicals in hair straighteners because many nail salons also provide hair services. Several lawsuits were filed after it was revealed that the popular Brazilian Blowout hair-straightening product contained cancer-causing formaldehyde despite being labeled “formaldehyde-free.”