Walking into the Isabella Nail Bar in Oakland, California, on a rainy spring morning, I notice a remarkable difference between this salon and others that I’ve visited.
No bad nail salon smell.
Uyen Nguyen opened her shop in 2008, and it’s one of a number of eco-friendly nail salons popping up around the country. It features formaldehyde-free polishes, organic lotions, and improved ventilation, among other things. The mission behind Nguyen’s salon, however, goes beyond saving the environment. Years ago, Nguyen’s sister-in-law, who worked in nail salons for over 15 years, discovered that her baby had died in the womb when she was eight months pregnant. Nguyen believes the fetus died because her sister-in-law was exposed to toxic chemicals in salons, specifically while she was doing acrylic, or fake, nails.
The persistent chemical exposure is “a silent killer,” Nguyen says, “so whatever I can do, I do. The cost [of opening a green salon] of course is more, but the long-term effects are worth it.”
In 2007 Time magazine named nail salon work one of the worst jobs in the United States because of the toxic products used in most shops. Nevertheless, the industry has more than tripled in size during the past decade and rakes in $6 billion annually. There are now 350,000 manicurists in the United States; 96 percent are women and 42 percent are Asian or Pacific Islander, according to the industry magazine Nails. These workers are exposed to a constant dose of toxins for eight or more hours a day.
A study conducted in the Boston area by the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, with the nonprofit Viet-AID found that Vietnamese nail workers suffer from a host of health issues, including musculoskeletal disorders, breathing problems, headaches, and rashes. Though the U.S. government sets chemical exposure levels, the regulations aren’t protecting workers, according to Cora Roelofs, the study’s lead author.
“These workers are clearly overexposed,” Roelofs says. “The [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] exposure limits are irrelevant in this work environment for many reasons—they are outdated, don’t add together different chemicals that have the same effect, don’t account for skin absorption, and were never meant to be protective against the myriad acute health effects experienced by these workers.”
One of the most toxic chemicals found in salons is the carcinogen formaldehyde. Others are toluene and dibutyl phthalate, toxins known to cause birth defects and miscarriages. All are volatile organic compounds, which means they evaporate into air, and nail salon workers inhale them.
Some former workers have become advocates. Alisha Tran is a former manicurist who is now part of a research team with Asian Health Services and the Northern California Cancer Center. Tran works to convince salon workers to participate in the project, which entails wearing an air monitor badge that tests for chemicals in the air.
Tran became an advocate after she was sent to the emergency room twice within two months. Both times, she was working on someone’s nails when her face and hands went numb. The second time Tran went to the hospital, the doctor who attended to her recommended that she leave her job.
“I quit two weeks later,” Tran says.
Tran hopes that her research will prove to nail salon workers that their jobs put their health at risk. She says advocating can be tricky—she can’t just tell people to leave their jobs because many have limited English skills and lack other options. And even if workers are concerned about chemicals, Tran says, they often fear that speaking up or asking to wear gloves will cause them to lose their jobs.
To ensure the safety of all nail salon workers, advocates believe the government should step in to regulate manufacturers, including banning more harmful chemicals, as the European Union has done. The U.S. cosmetics industry is allowed to sell products without even testing for safety, and manufacturers use known toxins—which they claim are safe—in small doses.
There’s also currently no green certification for nail salons in the United States, though groups like the Asian Law Caucus are trying to set a standard in California, and a Seattle-area group is setting up standards as part of King County’s EnviroStars green business program.
Without more laws to protect workers, more research into chemical exposure, and standards for green salons, people will have to rely on their own senses—and on entrepreneurs like Nguyen, whose goal isn’t just to make a living, but also to make a statement.
Momo Chang is an Oakland-based freelance writer and an editor at Hyphen, a volunteer-run magazine that explores contemporary Asian American culture. This article is excerpted from its Summer 2009 issue.