Groups Warn of Chemical Risks to Nail Salon Workers

Safety Advocates Want Tougher Government Regulation to Prevent Exposure to Risky Chemicals

Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on May 18, 2011
From the WebMD Archives

May 18, 2011 -- Groups are renewing a call for tougher federal regulation of salon products following recent studies suggesting dangerous chemicals could be endangering workers.

They want Congress to boost the power of the FDA to police salon products like nail polish, hair straighteners, and dyes because many of these products contain chemicals known to cause cancer, birth defects, and other problems.

"There is no labeling, no one knows what they're exposed to," says Thu Quatch, a researcher at the Cancer Institute of California. Quatch is the author of a recent study showing the air in salons in California contains high levels of toluene and other dangerous chemicals.

Researchers in that study also detected methyl-methacrylate in some salons, a chemical banned in the U.S. since 1974.

Quatch was among a group of scientists, safety advocates, and salon workers who spoke at a congressional staff briefing in Washington, D.C.

Nail Salon Safety

Over 375,000 nail technicians work in over 57,000 salons across the country, according to Quatch. An estimated half of them are Vietnamese immigrants, many of whom may not speak English, she says. But speaking English wouldn't help in many cases since salon products routinely go unlabeled, she says.

Ty Nguyen, who came to the U.S. in 2003 from Vietnam, says she suffered from headaches, seizures, and eye irritation after working for years around nail polish remover, polish, and other products in a California salon.

"I also wonder what other health problems that I have that I can't even feel or see. How are they connected to my work?" Nguyen says.

Of most concern are chemicals routinely found in hair and nail products including formaldehyde, toluene, and dibutyl phthalates. Each of the chemicals has been linked to endocrine disruption, reproductive effects, and birth defects to varying degrees. Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen.

The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and other groups are backing a bill called the Safe Cosmetics Act. It calls for full labeling of salon and cosmetic products and a phase out of chemicals linked to cancer or birth defects. The bill also gives the FDA the authority to recall products containing dangerous chemicals.

The bill was introduced in the 110th Congress but never passed. It is expected to be reintroduced soon.

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Thu Quatch, research scientist, Cancer Institute of California.

Ty Nguyen, salon worker, Westminster, Calif.

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