The Winnipeg nail salon at the centre of a workplace health complaint has made changes to improve air quality following concerns about strong odours from products it used.

Posh Nails, Winnipeg

Manitoba Workplace Safety and Health ordered Posh Nails in Winnipeg to hire an independent third party to come in and conduct a detailed air quality analysis. (CBC)

The smell was strong enough on a Saturday in January that it interrupted Gary Stern's breakfast at Stella's restaurant, located beside the salon in the same Osborne Street building.

The University of Manitoba chemistry professor said he had just started eating when he noticed it.

"All of a sudden this horrendous smell just engulfed the area that I was in," he said.

"It was a very powerful smell. I instantly got a very bad headache and became kind of woozy."

Gary Stern

University of Manitoba chemistry professor Gary Stern made a complaint about the odours at Posh Nails to Manitoba Workplace Safety and Health (WSH). (CBC)

Stern made a complaint about the odours at Posh Nails to Manitoba Workplace Safety and Health (WSH).

He wasn't the first to complain — others had done so in December, describing a strong odour causing irritation, headaches, nausea and dizziness.

WSH said preliminary tests revealed the presence of formaldehyde, a known carcinogen.

WSH ordered Posh Nails to hire an independent third party to come in and do a detailed air quality analysis of the workplace.

Posh owner Anthony Le said he is making $10,000 in changes to improve ventilation in the salon and to prevent airflow from moving out into a common area the business shares with Stella's restaurant.

Le told CBC News he has also taken two brands of nail polish off his shelves because of fears they contained formaldehyde.

He said it has been a learning experience.

"I was totally surprised when they test those two nail polishes that they detected formaldehyde," he said.  "Because on the material safety data sheet, it didn't mention anything on that."

The property management company for the Osborne Street building has installed some plastic sheeting in a gap between the ceiling and walls of Posh to help prevent any smells from leaking into the restaurant and common area of the building.

New test results

Late Thursday, Posh Nails sent the CBC News I-Team the independent lab results done after the WSH investigation began in December.

The report showed no presence of formaldehyde as of Jan. 28. The air monitors did pick up other toxic chemicals in the air, but they were well within the allowable limits, the report said.  Le disputes the province's original test results.

Doreen Maunder

European School of Esthethics owner Doreen Maunder says she's happy the province is taking a more active role in monitoring air quality. (CBC)

The results from that independent test, as well as testing at two other salons the province is proactively monitoring, will help determine the size and scope of a provincewide investigation of air quality in nail salons.

At the European School of Esthethics, owner Doreen Maunder teaches students the importance of good ventilation and techniques they can use to better protect themselves. She also champions Canadian products which she says contain less harmful chemicals.

She's happy the province is taking a more active role in monitoring air quality.

"There has been a lot of differences between who uses proper chemicals and safe chemicals, and those that are bringing them in say same from maybe other countries that don't have the same standards Canada does," Maunder said.

Suffers health problems

Maunder has a personal stake in ensuring her students use safer products. For years, she worked with many toxic chemicals that are now banned or frowned upon in the industry.

Doreen Maunder at the European School of Esthetics reacts to Workplace Safety & Health's plan to test nail salons for toxic chemicals.2:05

"Consequently I have sinus problems and that sort of thing, but we didn't know back then. It wasn't a matter of not taking precautions. We did not know what the consequences were then," she said.

"That's the hard part now. We know what the consequences are and some people aren't bothering to change," she added.

Stern said he's glad WSH is checking air quality in salons across the province. He works with chemicals in his university laboratory, but he said it has the benefit of protective equipment such as fume hoods that sweep the toxic fumes away.

He said salon workers deserve the same protection.

"They can't be breathing that in all the time," he said.

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With files from Holly Moore