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Perfect Nails, Poisoned Workers

nail salonSome ingredients used in nail products have been tied to cancer, miscarriages, lung diseases and other ailments. But despite rising concerns about effects on worker and client health, the industry continues to fight regulations.

This week, the New York Times is running an investigative series on the nail salon industry, covering workers rights, health impacts, labor exploitation, wage theft and even charges of slave labor in the industry (yes, right here in the U.S.!)

In the first installment, journalists document rampant stories among salon workers of illness and tragedy: children born slow or “special,” miscarriage and cancer, coughs that never go away and painful skin afflictions. One worker showing her fingertips tells how she finally applied for a drivers license: when the clerk went to take her fingerprints, she noted that they had been virtually erased over the years from all the filing and chemicals exposure. Other stories involving birth defects and have become so common that older manicurists warn women of child-bearing age to avoid the business, which exposes them on a daily basis to a potent brew of polishes, solvents, hardeners and glues.

Industry officials claim that their products contain only trace amounts of the chemicals identified as potentially hazardous, and therefore a routine manicure poses no threat. Yet these arguments are coming from those who directly profit from the industry and have no backgrounds in medical research. Medical journals and comprehensive research studies, on the other hand, do show connections between the chemicals that make nail and beauty products useful — the ingredients that make them chip-resistant and pliable, quick to dry and brightly colored, for example — and serious health problems.

Moreover, whatever risk a typical customer faces during her weekly appointment, it cannot come close to comparing with the exposure of the manicurists themselves who must handle the chemicals and breathe their fumes for hours on end, day after day.

Indeed, the pervasiveness of respiratory and skin conditions among nail salon workers is widely acknowledged. What remains less certain is the risk of more life-altering (or life-ending) medical issues. Some chemicals in nail products are known carcinogens, and have been directly linked to elevated cancer rates. Others tie to abnormal fetal development, miscarriages and other harm to reproductive health.

So while that corner nail salon might look bright and cheerful from outside, the realities of these workplace hazards should give everyone pause. Recent medical studies have even found that cosmetologists — not just manicurists, but also hairdressers and makeup artists — have elevated rates of death from Hodgkin’s disease, of low birth-weight babies and of multiple myeloma, a form of cancer.

Shockingly, the federal law regulating cosmetics safety is now more than 75 years old, and does not require companies to share safety information with the Food and Drug Administration. While the law bans ingredients harmful to users, but it contains no provisions for the agency to evaluate the effects of the chemicals before they are put on shelves.

It seems disgraceful that the working conditions for professional in the beauty industry puts their own health and well-being at risk as they provide routine service for others. For more on this series, visit the current New York Times stories.

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Emery Reddy