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Movers And Shakers

Environmental engineer Lupita Montoya scrutinizes air quality inside nail salons

The University of Colorado Boulder researcher poses artful solution to nail salons’ indoor air pollution

by Carmen Drahl, special to C&EN
August 11, 2019 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 97, Issue 32


A photo of Lupita Montoya standing outside a building
Credit: Courtesy of Lupita Montoya


Hometown: I was born in Culiacán, Sinaloa State, in Mexico, but I consider Los Angeles my hometown. I’ve been there since I was a teenager.

Studies: BS, engineering, California State University, Northridge, 1989; MS, mechanical engineering, 1991, and PhD, environmental engineering, 1999, Stanford University; postdoc, University at Albany, 1998–2000; postdoc, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, 2000–2003

Favorite molecule: Oxygen. I have dedicated about 3 decades of my professional career to providing clean air to all people.

Hobbies: Sometimes when I feel like my scientific work takes too long to bear fruit, I can usually see results a lot sooner from the work that I put into my garden. I have peaches, pears, apples, raspberries, blackberries, and plums.

What diversity means: Diversity means different. Not somebody who thinks like you but just happens to have a Latino last name.

Next place she wants to measure VOCs: The coal-mining region in Colombia. It’s a complex situation. We determined there were additional sources of pollution besides coal that come into the homes. The people are very poor. Determining what the right solution is involves social sciences and cultural understanding.

When nail salons are in the news, the coverage is rarely pretty. A 2015 New York Times investigation, for example, uncovered details about the industry’s underpaid workers—overwhelmingly immigrants—and their health complaints. The series prompted swift legislation in New York State. However, it also sparked backlash from salon owners who felt that the costly new mandates would harm their small businesses and that the series went too far in generalizing about their industry.

Lupita Montoya, an environmental engineer at the University of Colorado Boulder, is taking a different approach to the issue by involving both nail salon owners and workers from the start. At local nail salons, her team measured pollutants in the air generated through the use of nail polishes, polish removers, and artificial nail products. The researchers captured pollutants in specially designed vessels and quantified them using a variety of analytical techniques. Carmen Drahl spoke with Montoya—an immigrant herself—about the science and about working with salon communities to find solutions to indoor air pollution.

What sparked your interest in the air quality at nail salons?

My research expertise is in indoor air quality, but I’m also a first-generation scientist. I’m in many different spaces where I see workers exposed to compounds that probably are posing a hazard, yet we don’t know much about it because we rarely study these populations. When I walk into any nail salon, the first thing that impacts me is the smell. So knowing what the smell may mean—that likely there are high levels of VOCs (volatile organic compounds)—just makes me wonder what kinds of compounds those are and how they may be affecting the people that work there because they experience long-term exposure.

How did you find nail salons that would agree to be tested?

That was a real challenge. I spent a year visiting salons and talking to people about the possibility of taking some measurements, and it became evident quickly that people were not comfortable just saying yes.

I put fieldwork on the back burner for over a year until one of my undergraduate advisees—Feng Xiang, a first-generation student—asked me a question regarding my research. She said, “I have some friends who might be interested in helping you access some of these places.” I ultimately had several undergraduate students, all of them first generation, on the project. None of them had done research, but they had a personal interest in the work. They have connections to the nail salon industry. And that’s how we started.

What has your fieldwork found in terms of nail salon air quality?

A photo of two hands having just opened a bottle of red nail polish. The fingernails on the hands are painted an identical shade of red.
Credit: Glenn Asakawa/University of Colorado Boulder
Bottles of nail polish like the one held by Lupita Montoya may emit volatile organic compounds into nail salons’ air.

We were measuring the BTEX family of compounds—benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylenes—using specially prepared canisters that capture VOCs for analysis by gas chromatography/mass spectrometry. People study them in many different contexts, and some of them are carcinogenic. We did a comparison with two other studies of VOC levels in other workplaces to see where nail salons fall. We found that the measurements in the nail salons were often on par with reported measurements in oil refineries and auto garages. Another compound that was present was methyl methacrylate, or MMA. What was interesting about that is that MMA has been banned in Colorado. Because of allergic reactions in both customers and workers, the US Food and Drug Administration and the Methacrylate Producers Association have concluded that MMA in its liquid form should not be used in nail products. We followed up with questions for the workers. Even though it’s banned, you can still buy it in products for artificial nails. In some cases the workers prefer this compound over other, less hazardous ones because it’s easier to apply. So sometimes the practices of the workers are truly against their own interests.

What could your results mean for workers’ health?

A gray, doughnut-shaped ceramic sculpture comprising multiple adjacent mounds containing activated carbon.
Credit: Jorge Perez-Gallego/NEST Studio for the Arts
Activating Carbon is a prototype artwork containing activated carbon for removing volatile organic compounds from the air. Lupita Montoya and Aaron Lamplugh developed it in collaboration with artist Camila Friedman-Gerlicz. The sculpture is 142 cm in diameter.

My PhD student Aaron Lamplugh conducted an exercise to estimate workers’ cancer risk. In the absence of more expensive studies following people throughout their lifetimes, you can use a point in time to estimate cancer risk. That was done using a couple of modeling tools from the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Integrated Risk Information System. To do this, we needed to have some inputs for the model. We had our measurements from the salons, we asked the workers how many hours a week they work, and we had average body weights provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. You have to make some assumptions. The outcome was that the lifetime cancer risk was above one in a million, the threshold level that the EPA and people in public health consider to be of concern.

How are you working to improve conditions inside nail salons?

We’re working on systems to clean the air. We didn’t want something expensive because these salons don’t have a lot of money. In a sealed stainless-steel chamber of about the same volume as a refrigerator, we tested different materials to see whether they absorb VOCs. The one that worked best was activated carbon. Then we needed to figure out how to put activated carbon in a room in a way that people would not notice. So we connected with artist Camila Friedman-Gerlicz. She showed the nail salon owners and workers the art she could do, and they gave her feedback on what kind of art they’d like. Camila and Aaron introduced adsorbent materials into ceramic and plaster matrices and then tested their ability to remove VOCs. We had an exhibit on campus with this piece of art, which is lovely but is still prototype level. Our goal is to bring this art to the salons to clean the air.

I also met with one of our city council people who became aware of my work. We are already in conversations to try to do something for salon workers who need to be protected.

What about this work do you think resonated with your first-generation students?

I think work like this is one way to bring more diversity into science. Many of us who come from underserved communities want to do science that matters to our communities. When you come from a community that doesn’t have a lot of privileges, doing science simply because it’s sexy or interesting is a luxury that many of us don’t care for. We want to produce something that can impact not only our communities but society overall.

Carmen Drahl is a freelance writer. A version of this story first appeared in ACS Central Science: This interview was edited for length and clarity.


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