Toxic products in California nail salons under renewed scrutiny

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As the manager of a nail salon in Brea, Phuoc Dam tries to buy toxic-free nail polish. He makes sure the salon has fresh air and that his workers wear gloves when necessary.

Despite his efforts, Dam said he still worries about the long-term effects of the nail products on his staff. His wife, one of the salon’s manicurists, has recurring headaches and dizziness.

“I am really concerned about the health of all the people who work in the salon, and my wife especially,” said Dam, 58, a Vietnamese immigrant who has been in the business for 25 years.

Nail salons, with rows of colorful polish and massaging spa chairs, are ubiquitous in California, where customers can get manicures, pedicures and other treatments quickly and cheaply. There are roughly 120,000 licensed nail technicians in 48,000 salons across the state. About four in five are Vietnamese women.

Their health has long been an important issue for advocates, who say salon employees work long hours in hazardous conditions and suffer health problems as a result. Workers have more headaches, respiratory problems and skin irritations than the general population and are exposed to chemicals at higher than recommended levels, according to research in scientific journals.

Now, safety issues in nail salons are attracting closer attention from state officials. The state Department of Toxic Substances Control is expected to issue a report today showing that investigators found toxic chemicals in several nail products that had claimed to be toxic-free. The study, based on a small sample of products from Bay Area distributors, focused on three chemicals known as the “toxic trio”: formaldehyde, toluene and dibutyl phthalate. Exposure to the chemicals has been linked to cancer and birth defects, according to the state.

“It is just disheartening, distressing and disturbing as a consumer and a regulator,” said Debbie Raphael, director of the department.

Raphael said the results were surprising and showed that the state needs to work more closely with manufacturers to ensure that labels are accurate, and with regulators to determine whether there are safer alternatives for consumers and workers. “The question that we want to engage industry in is, is it necessary to use these chemicals?” she said.

There is little regulation of nail product manufacturers, said Thu Quach, a research scientist with the Cancer Prevention Institute of California who has studied the nail salon industry. Any amount of toxic chemicals in nail products can be dangerous to workers, she said, especially if the salons lack adequate ventilation. “Low levels in the products really add up when you are using them constantly,” she said.

Cities have started to recognize the potential hazards. Boston health officials approved regulations last year requiring salons to get health permits and establishing more protections for workers. And this summer, San Francisco will begin formally recognizing salons that use toxic-free products.

The ordinance was supported by the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative, which organizes and educates workers and pushes for policy changes to make salons safer.

The new state report is alarming and could undermine the efforts of owners trying to do the right thing to protect their workers, said Julia Liou, co-founder of the collaborative and public health administrator at Asian Health Services in Oakland. “This is a major public health issue and it really interferes with workers’ right to a healthy work environment,” she said. “Workers shouldn’t have to suffer health impacts because a manufacturer is making false claims.”

Nail companies counter that health officials should focus on ventilation and protective gear rather than products, said Doug Schoon, scientist and co-chairman of the Nail Manufacturers Council. Schoon said no manufacturers should label their products incorrectly but that the advocates are missing the point.

“Instead of saying throw all the chemicals out, we should be teaching people how to use them in a safe fashion,” he said. “Nail polish has been used safely for decades.”

Dam in Brea said he and his nephew, the owner, will continue trying to keep their dozen workers safe. But he said it would help if he could know for sure what was toxic and what wasn’t because it’s impossible to avoid chemicals altogether. “We have no choice but to use them,” he said.

Hue Nguyen, 58, has worked as a manicurist in the Bay Area since 2004. As an immigrant, she said the trade was easy to learn and didn’t require much English. But soon after she started, Nguyen began feeling dizzy and getting headaches. And in 2008, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. “I think it is related to the chemicals,” she said through a translator, adding that she was healthy until she began the job.

Nguyen said she wishes she had chosen a different line of work when she first arrived from Vietnam rather than becoming a manicurist, saying: “The price is too high.”