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Vietnamese-American nail salon workers are experiencing a dizzying array of health problems related to their work, according to a study conducted by research faculty in UMass Lowell’s Work Environment Department in the School of Health and Environment.
The study was carried out in conjunction with the Vietnamese American Initiative for Development, Inc. (Viet-AID), a multi-service community and economic development organization serving Boston’s Vietnamese community.
No longer a luxury item, manicure and pedicure services have grown dramatically in the past 20 years, due to the increase in discount salons owned and staffed by Vietnamese refugees and immigrants. During the same time period, “artificial” or acrylic nails have also moved from the fringe to the fashion mainstream.
Toxic chemicals are present in small amounts in many of the products that technicians breathe in and touch every day. The occasional pedicure would likely not endanger the health of a salon patron, but nail techs often work 45 hours or longer each week in contact with these products. The constant bent posture of the manicurist also takes a toll on her body.
Acetone and other solvents in nail polish remover and polish have been linked to central nervous system impairment. The acrylic used by nail techs to make artificial nails contains a substance known to cause asthma and dermatitis. Nail hardeners contain formaldehyde, a cancer-causing substance. Nail polish contains toluene, which can cause kidney and liver damage.
“Our colleagues at Viet-AID were telling us that they were concerned for the health of the community which is so dependent on nail salon work,” says Cora Roelofs, research assistant professor in the Department of Work Environment. “Because of what we knew about toxics in nail products, we worked with them to survey workers about health effects and the nail salon work environment.” Roelofs is co-author of “Results from a Community-based Occupational Health Survey of Vietnamese-American Nail Salon Workers,” published on-line in the Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health.
Nail salon technicians reported musculoskeletal disorders, skin problems, respiratory irritation and headaches. A common misconception about work in nail salons is that masks protect workers from airborne contaminants.
“The typical masks that you see technicians wearing are designed for infection control and do not prevent the inhalation of chemical vapors,” says Roelofs.
The results of the study were communicated to nail salon workers and the Vietnamese community via ethnic media outlets and helped inform the development of a bilingual nail salon “health and safety tips” calendar.
While providing information may help, the study recommends that salon licensing boards ensure that salons have appropriate ventilation, and nail product manufacturers reformulate their products to reduce hazards at the source.
“While most people would assume that the government would not permit harmful substances in cosmetics, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is actually quite limited in its powers to protect consumers and workers,” notes Roelofs. However, some U.S. cosmetics makers, including OPI, Revlon, Proctor and Gamble and Estee Lauder have begun to take some toxics out of their nail products because of new European restrictions. Progress on safer cosmetics can be followed at www.safecosmetics.org.