Julia Liou, of Asian Health Services, called the current set of regulatory laws "a broken system." She outlined "what we call the toxic trio" of ingredients in nail products:
- Formaldehyde, which hardens nail polish. According to the National Cancer Institute, short-term health effects include coughing and wheezing, and it has been linked to some cancers.
- Toluene, used in the production of polymers that make nail polish. It acts on the central nervous system and can cause headaches, dizziness and nausea.
- Dibutyl phthalate (DBP), which prevents polish from becoming brittle. The state of California has classified DBP as a reproductive and developmental toxicant, meaning it's especially dangerous for pregnant women. It has been banned in Europe.
While many manufacturers voluntarily agreed to make their products without these ingredients, plenty are still on the market.
Liou is co-founder of the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative, which promotes safer products and practices to benefit both workers and consumers. "There are a set of criteria in order to be designated as a healthy nail salon," Liou said. "And that involves not only health and safety training that the owners and the workers need to participate in, but also that they use safe, less toxic products. There are safer alternatives out there."
Terrena Atchison, who owns a salon in Pacifica, is part of the healthy nail salon program. "Once we joined the program, we had to get rid of all the toxic products," Atchison said. "That way we can promote a healthier work environment for [the employees] and for me, because I work there, too. ... My employees are happy."
Improved ventilation and using protective gear are also part of the program. Staff members with the program provide free education and other support to help salon owners adopt all the required practices.
The program is limited, but growing. "Healthy nail salons" are found mostly in the Bay Area and Santa Monica. A caller to Forum suggested that Yelp include an indication that a nail salon is in the program.
In the wake of the Times investigation, New York's governor, Andrew Cuomo, has ordered emergency measures to protect nail salon workers. But Liou urged a certain degree of caution.
"The last thing we want to do is create this culture fear and … make even more vulnerable the workers that are in these nail salons," she said. "These are immigrant-owned businesses."
She said consumers should pay attention for any "egregious issues happening, but at the same time, consumers really help educate workers and owners … and we urge consumers to ask for greater regulations."
San Francisco filmmakers Diane Griffin and Erica Jordan are putting the finishing touches on a documentary, "Painted Nails," which follows the story of a Vietnamese immigrant who owns a San Francisco nail salon. As she learns of the health risks of chemicals that she works with every day, she becomes an activist and ultimately testifies before Congress.
Watch the trailer: