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Overpowering smell from nail salons likely behind illnesses that led to cinema evacuation

16:20 23/02/2023

The evacuation of a cinema, shopping arcade and several homes in Brussels, after people complained of eye irritation, breathing difficulties and an unbearable smell, was likely to have been caused by the many nail salons in the vicinity.

About 100 people were evacuated, one of whom had to be hospitalised, from the Aventure cinema and the Galerie du Centre in Brussels, along with the homes above it, earlier this week.

Brussels police suspect the heavy smell of nail polish from the salons that proliferate the gallery is to blame, but an investigation by Brussels Environment is still pending.

Considering that moviegoers and residents were so affected by the smell, it stands to reason that the employees of the nail salons – many of whom are Vietnamese women illegally working without residency – are facing dangerous working conditions.

“We had already mentioned to the local Brussels police that public health was potentially at risk because people sometimes use products in the salons that are not recognised in the EU,” said Bruno Devillé, team chief at the ECOSOC cell of the Brussels National Social Security Office (NSSO), responsible for human trafficking and economic exploitation.

“During inspections, we too leave with a headache after an hour in such a salon.”

Devillé said the problem is widespread and goes beyond public health issues arising from the products used in the salons.

“Many of the workers are working there illegally,” Devillé explained.

“We suspect it is part of a network of people smugglers. Brussels is an important stopover point towards the UK for many Vietnamese migrants. They are employed here to pay back the cost of their journey to people smugglers.”

This is also confirmed by the latest report by Myria, the federal migration centre that fights against human trafficking and smuggling.

“Due to their relatively limited regulation, these businesses provide criminal organisations with an attractive place for economic exploitation and the laundering of criminal proceeds,” its report reads.

With a team of just three, Devillé says it is difficult to uncover more than the tip of the iceberg, but that improvements are on the horizon.

“By autumn, the team should be reinforced with four more people,” Devillé said, adding that nail salons are becoming increasingly spread throughout the region.

“Originally, nail salons established themselves in the Centre Gallery. Later, salons came to the Agora Gallery and expanded towards the Matongé district. Today you find salons scattered all over the region.”

Some of these shops were later shut down after inspections, including at least 10 during spot checks in October last year.

But complicating the matter is a new trend. African hair salons are hiring out places where Vietnamese workers do nail care, making it difficult for inspectors to get an idea of the number of workers in the industry.

Complaints about the smells – which usually come from nail polish removers – from such salons are not new.

“The smell is always kind of fierce here,” one would-be customer told Bruzz. “But that's why I always put on my mask.”

A ventilation problem could be at the root of the problem, according to Brussels fire brigade spokesman Walter Derieuw.

No measures are planned for the moment concerning the shops in the gallery, the office of the mayor of the city of Brussels, Philippe Close (PS) told Belga.

The office of the alderman for urban planning, Ans Persoons (Vooruit), said it was waiting for more information from the ongoing investigation before making a decision.

Written by Helen Lyons