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Toxic Nail Salons: Why Your Nail Polish Color Could be the Next Agent Orange

Nail salon workers, and potentially their customers, may be at risk from a toxic cocktail of chemicals that have been linked to cancer, birth defects and skin rashes.

"Pick a color!" a pretty, 38-year-old woman named Pong orders, as I enter Tower Nails, a typical Bay Area nail salon owned and staffed by Vietnamese immigrants of childbearing age.

Reds, corals, pinks, creams, blacks, blues, even Kelly greens. Selecting a polish can be as stimulating as shopping for baby names, a fun and serotonin-releasing, female preoccupation witnessed as early as the teenage years. Perhaps that explains the huge proliferation of the affordable walk-in salons -- the number of nail salons in California has tripled in the last two decades. The overwhelming majority of the workers are Asian immigrants, and of the 300,000 nail salon workers in the state, 80 percent are Vietnamese. And these women, and perhaps even their customers, may be at risk from a toxic cocktail of chemicals.

The biggest concern is the trio of toluene, formaldehyde and dibutyl phthalate (DBP) found in most base and top coats and polishes. This combination of chemicals has been linked to cancer, birth defects and skin rashes, especially with frequent exposure. Women in America need to ask themselves, are they picking their color or their poison?

The good news is that trips to the salon don't have to be toxic. There are readily available, safe products like Go Natural polishes and removers. But so far, for most salon workers and customers, convention has superseded the health of women.

Convincing the $35 billion cosmetics industry to voluntarily commit to reformulating its products is proving harder than getting squeezed in for a last minute mani-pedi appointment at noon on a Saturday.

Instead, the industry produces more 6,000 new chemical compounds each year and spends hundreds of thousands of dollars successfully lobbying against legislation to ban dangerous chemicals sold in states like California.

It is a different story in Europe, which has banned all phthalates from its cosmetics. The model in the European Union has been to prove that products are safe before they are allowed on the market. It's the opposite in the U.S., where we have to prove a product is harmful in order to see regulatory action.

Protecting Workers

How do we protect those most at risk? As the salon business continues to expand, the burden falls on state advocates to educate salon workers and lobby for an industry-wide polish change.

"In the last three years, there have been more organizations with outreach trying to inform manicurists of the dangers, but the education is only happening in pockets of the country rather than a unified campaign," explains Momo Chang, an Oakland, California writer who has investigated the dangers posed to Vietnamese salon workers.

Five years ago, Chang began exposing the dangers to Vietnamese salon workers who reported high cases of chronic asthma, fungal infections, skin rashes and miscarriages among their co-workers. One of these women had a toddler born with a digestive disorder requiring gastric surgery and feeding through a tube, a condition linked to his mother's frequent exposure to salon chemicals throughout her pregnancy.

"Much of mainstream media's focus has been on regulating immigrant-owned discount salons that are portrayed as unhygienic, yet there has been virtually no mention of health risks to the 1.2 million cosmetologists in the United States, many of whom are recent immigrants," observes Chang.

In 2006, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a law requiring salons to clean up their acts to prevent bacteria leading to tuberculosis and staph infections, as well as other fungus-related sickness.

But the bill did not address exposure to toxic chemicals. That's why the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative was created. Backed by Asian Health Services, an Oakland-based community health clinic, much of the collaborative's work is aimed at informing non-English speaking workers who are at a great disadvantage when it comes to accessing and understanding information on chemical health risks and prevention.

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