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Getting Nailed

[whitespace] nail-industry workers Chemical Sister: Health advocates say that nail-industry workers like Patty Moran of Envogue of Los Gatos are still underprotected and are getting hefty doses of airborne chemicals in their lungs and on their skin.

Christopher Gardner

Despite the banning of one chemical and some increased education, salon technicians who sculpt those knockout nails and acrylic tips say many workers are still taking a health hit

By Traci Hukill

'SEE THIS?" says Patty Moran, pointing to the tabletop with her nail file. A fine layer of white dust--the filings from treated nails--coats her hands, her client's hands and an area of about a square foot on the plastic surface.

"I know this thing works because when I change the filter there's stuff in it," she says as she peers at a vent register in the specialized ventilation table. "But I think most of the dust is in my nose right now."

Moran, 38 and a mother of four, has the sole nail table in her new workplace, Envogue of Los Gatos. She only does nails once in a while now, preferring instead to cut hair. For eight years during the '80s, though, she made her living as a manicurist, often working 10-hour days and six-day weeks. Her specialty was freehand design work--painting tiny Golden Gate Bridges and Christmas trees on sculptured nails.

At the time Moran knew nothing about the chemicals in the products she was using. She didn't use a mask, and she worked in a small, unventilated store with 13 other manicurists while her manager huffed cigarettes all day. The smell was overpowering. Moran makes a face just remembering it.

"I started having trouble breathing," she recalls. "I got to where I couldn't even smell the chemicals at all. And I could feel the dust in my lungs."

Then, in 1989, Moran went to a hair show in San Jose where someone handed out a booklet about the hazardous materials in nail products. "I thought, 'Why didn't anyone tell me this sooner?' " she says. "And then I decided I didn't want to work with this stuff anymore. I didn't want to die young. I got out six months later."

Even now, after 10 years, Moran is frequently reminded of how those products affected her health. "I lost part of my sense of smell," she says. "When someone says, 'Do you smell that?' most times I can't smell anything at all."

What Moran didn't know, and what a substantial number of California's 76,000 manicurists still don't know, is that the substances they're working with contain chemicals known to cause eye, skin and lung irritation, miscarriages and even cancer. The acetone in nail polish remover can cause central nervous system depression. The superglue that binds acrylic nails to the nail bed contains a substance known to cause asthma. Nail hardeners use formaldehyde, a carcinogen. Nail polish contains toluene, a neurotoxicant that can harm fetuses. The list goes on.

CRITICS DISAGREE over the severity of the problem. At one extreme is Nhu-Ha Le, an environmental engineer who worked for DuPont and Monsanto for 16 years. She got worried about nail products when her sister became a manicurist several years ago. Le conducted an informal survey of several hundred manicurists in Delaware and found that within seven years most of them had suffered from respiratory tract infections. Plus, she found, "Every nail technician feels exhausted at the end of a day because they're exposed to long hours of vapors. They have mood swings."

In contrast, Doug Schoon, research director for Southern California-based Creative Nail Design and a member of the Safety and Standards Committee of the Nail Manufacturers Council, says the whole subject is a tempest in a teapot. "I think the level of concern really needs to be understood," he says. "There's really very little health risk in using these things. About the worst thing that can happen is someone becomes allergic, and again that's from repeated, prolonged exposure to the skin."

At the center of a debate over the health risks of nail products are the methacrylates, a family of chemicals used in making resins. A material called methyl methacrylate, used to make temporary crowns in dentistry, was also used for artificial nails until 1979, when the FDA banned it as "poisonous and deleterious." Now confined to the black market, MMA still occasionally finds its way into salons because it is cheap, and there are rumors of salon owners who put MMA-based materials in legitimate containers. One nail product manufacturer has even created a test kit to determine the presence of MMA in a given product.

With its nefarious first cousin off the scene, a related product called ethyl methacrylate, or EMA, has stepped up as the bonding agent of choice in legitimate nail salons. EMA is the primary reason for the powerful chemical smell in salons. When manicurists apply acrylic nails, they make a strong, fast-drying resin by dipping a brush in a fixative powder and then in a liquid containing EMA, then quickly brushing the mixture on the nail. The result is an extremely hard bond that has been criticized for being too adhesive. Some women have actually had their nails ripped off the nail bed because the glue is so much stronger than the nail, and when the hand is jammed or knocked, the nail gives way before the glue does.

Though it's generally agreed that EMA isn't as harmful as MMA, the former still garners its share of criticism. Says Le, "The natural dust of nail filing you can inhale and exhale back out. But when you treat nails with EMA and file them, it makes dust you can't breathe out. It stays in your lungs."

Laura Stock of UC-Berkeley's Labor Occupational Health Program points out that just because a product has not been banned by the FDA doesn't mean it's not bad for you. "The process of getting something banned is so long and arduous that you can't assume that anything that isn't banned is safe," she says.

One of the problems with EMA is that scientists have not yet agreed on how much of it humans can tolerate. Studies have shown that a typical nail salon has 30 to 40 parts per million of EMA in the air. Le says one part per million is too much. Doug Schoon says the limit is more like 200 parts per million. The National Institutes of Health are considering funding an investigation into the matter to settle it once and for all.

Not surprisingly, industry associations tend to downplay the danger of chemicals in nail products. Says Vi Nelson, spokeswoman for the American Beauty Association, "[The manicurists] have all been trained. And if there is any product that requires special caution, the manufacturer would indicate that on the label or in the instructions."

For his part, industry chemist Schoon blames any skin irritation development on the practitioners themselves. "If after years people develop reactions," he says, "well, that's because they're sloppy. I've seen people wiping brushes off with their fingers." He also points out that though some nail technicians develop asthma, "People who aren't nail technicians get asthma, too."

Unlike construction sites and manufacturing plants, nail salons aren't considered high-hazard work sites. CalOSHA inspectors visit nail salons when there are employee complaints, but they don't make regular appearances as they do with some other industries. And when they do visit, they aren't looking for masks or ventilation hoods because those things are not currently required by law. What is required is a general standard of air cleanliness that applies to banks and shoe stores as well as nail salons. To determine that, inspectors have to test the air quality. And then they have to make a judgment call about chemicals with no legally identified permissible exposure limit, which is still the case with most products in nail salons.

IN NOVEMBER the Toxic Avengers Theater, a project of the nonprofit Santa Clara Center for Occupational Safety and Health, presented a series of radio programs aired in Vietnamese. One episode, "The Story of the Manicurist," features an older nail technician suffering from health problems she blames on nail products. Ill and regretful, she cautions her younger colleagues to protect themselves as she did not. Toxic Avengers Theater exists to serve immigrant unorganized workers in low-wage chemical-intensive jobs--in other words, a group of people with little power working in high-risk jobs.

Many of the nail industry's newest arrivals are Southeast Asian. The state Department of Consumer Affairs now administers manicure and cosmetology certification tests in English, Spanish, Vietnamese and Japanese. One reason for the high rate of Asian women in the business is the relatively high return on low investment. In California, home to almost a third of the nation's licensed manicurists, a manicurist curriculum is 400 hours long, or about 10 weeks. As soon as that's complete, a worker, no matter how recently arrived in the United States, can be well on her way to earning a respectable income--a recent industrywide survey published in Nails magazine listed manicurists' average income as $482 a week.

Generally speaking, workers appear to be on their own, at least in the South Bay. The union that represents barbers and cosmetologists--the United Food and Commercial Workers--represents only a couple of hundred practitioners in the area, and most of those are barbers. The California Cosmetologists Association, which represents about 2,000 manicurists, hairdressers, barbers and estheticians statewide, doesn't track its members' health complaints.

Slowly the industry has made strides toward educating its workers. In 1994 the state cosmetology board, working with the Labor Occupational Health Program at UC-Berkeley, created a 15-hour course as a mandatory part of certification in California. That's good news for recent beauty school graduates, but many women who were certified before that aren't aware of the dangers posed to their health by the nail polish, glue, liquid monomers and polish remover they work with each day. And it's hard to believe that working manicurists who don't speak enough English to understand the question "Do you worry about the chemicals you work with?" could have understood and retained two days' worth of detailed information about chemical hazards.

Many women, if they do experience health problems, don't make the connection to their workplace. Says Amanda Hawes, an occupational health attorney who specializes in hazardous substance cases, "What happens a lot is people will go to the doctor because they're not feeling good, and the doctor will ask them, 'Do you work with chemicals?' and they'll say, 'No.' They don't think of the things they work with every day as toxic chemicals."

Will Forest, a toxicologist with the occupational health branch of the state health department, says a "substantial number" of calls fielded by his office come from manicurists concerned about the levels of toxicity in nail products. He cautions, though, against confusing smell with toxicity. "People have the mistaken notion that the smell indicates the amount of hazard," he says. "But really it varies place to place." He recommends masks for the dust and a good ventilation system to deal with the vapors.

Certainly workers are more aware than they used to be. Many women use masks when working, which helps to filter EMA dust. Le says that's insufficient, that the microns from nail dust are small enough to pass through the masks. And they certainly don't help with vapors.

No, the entrepreneurial Le has a better idea--the NailVent2000, a contraption of her design that looks like an aquarium with glove holes on the manicurist's side and hand holes for the client. It's in effect a miniature see-through quarantine room. It sucks the fumes and dust right into an attached filter so the vapors need never pass through the worker's and client's breathing zones.

Unfortunately, many technicians won't be able to afford Le's $1,200 system. And it will likely be a long time before nail product companies feel sufficient heat from the loosely organized manicurists to put time and money into researching nontoxic alternatives to profitable products. Meanwhile, good ventilation and masks are a nail technician's best friends.

Le, who has already marketed the system on the East Coast with fair success, plans on peddling her pet product in California next month. Although it's expensive, she insists it's worth it. "It's cheaper than a coffin," she quips slyly.

For questions about chemicals involved in nail products, call the occupational health branch of the state health department at 510/622-4300.

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From the January 21-27, 1999 issue of Metro.

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