At city nail shops, guarding workers against a toxic mix

Email|Print| Text size + By Stephen Smith
Globe Staff / November 19, 2007

Back when she began sanding fingernails and lacquering toenails for a living - back when she was younger - Tammy Ly didn't worry so much about the throbbing headaches, teary eyes, and cramping hands.

"Years passed and I had more headaches, my vision became worse, my hands hurt," said Ly, who has spent 14 years waxing, polishing, and buffing customers, most recently as proprietor of Tammy's Nails in Codman Square, where spindly plants from her native Vietnam fill the windowsill, put there to cleanse the air.

"My workers have headaches and sore eyes, too. If someone could help us, that would be good," she said.

In Boston and across the United States, emigres from developing nations occupy jobs - and, often, own businesses - that expose them to toxins and tasks linked to wheezing lungs, foggy brains, and sore limbs. Three years ago, Boston health authorities embarked on a novel campaign to protect the health of workers in auto-repair garages, a field frequently occupied by immigrant men.

Now, the Boston Public Health Commission is expanding its Safe Shops initiative to the hundreds of nail salons that dot the city, businesses overwhelmingly staffed by women from Southeast Asia. They are shops where the tart perfume of nail polish and other chemical-laden beauty products hangs heavy in the air.

Starting in January, health agency representatives will venture into salons, stressing the importance of proper ventilation, demonstrating the correct use of gloves and masks, and urging owners to switch to safer products that have emerged in the past year.

The campaign, underwritten by a $300,000 federal grant, is an official acknowledgement of what has long been known by small business owners and their workers: Service industry employment is often the modern-day version of what Charles Dickens and Upton Sinclair once described: jobs with long hours, cramped conditions, and only nominal government oversight.

"These women are being exposed all day long to solvents and similar chemicals in the products they're using that can have a variety of effects. It's a smorgasbord of chemicals," said Paul Shoemaker, an environmental health specialist who will run the city's nail salon campaign.

A study of Boston area nail salon workers, released last month on the website of the Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health, found that 31 of 71 workers reported respiratory symptoms, including troubled breathing, persistent coughing, and sinus woes. Those symptoms occur at higher rates than in the general population.

Especially telling: More than two-thirds of the nail technicians with respiratory trouble said they felt better after leaving the shop, according to the study, led by Cora R. Roelofs, an occupational health researcher at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.

Similarly, 31 workers reported that they suffered headaches that improve only after their shift ends. Earlier studies found that salon workers have an elevated risk of respiratory, skin, and neurological ailments.

"They talk a lot about the headaches," said Hiep Chu, executive director of Viet-AID, a community alliance that collaborated on the study. "Some of the individuals have constant headaches. Some of them want to commit suicide, it's so bad."

Companies that make nail polishes and glues argue that their products are safe when used correctly, in salons that have appropriate ventilation and storage. But activists counter that what workers face is a toxic mix of long workdays, poor on-the-job conditions, and a stew of chemicals adding up to danger.

"These folks work in the salon 10 to 12 hours a day, six to seven days a week," said Lynn Rose, a social justice activist in Western Massachusetts who works as a consultant to the US Environmental Protection Agency on issues regarding nail salons. "Unless you have a good ventilation system or a good way to manage the products to eliminate the emissions, you're creating an ongoing exposure throughout the day to a whole range of chemicals."

A top cosmetics industry executive, Eric Schwartz, said that chemicals such as toluene and dibutyl phthalate - once ubiquitous in nail polishes - are safe in small amounts. Still, his company, OPI, recently removed those agents from its products.

"We're not saying our industry is perfect," said Schwartz, cochairman of the health and safety committee of the Nail Manufacturers Council, a trade group. But "a lot of the problems come back to good work practices and ventilation. The real issues in our industry are allergies and respiratory irritation, people not wearing masks when they're filing, and not wearing protective clothing or being sloppy with the ingredients they're using, because they spill stuff on their skin."

Nail shops operate with scant regulatory oversight, and many federal standards about acceptable levels of chemical exposure were established more than three decades ago. While state inspectors visit salons roughly once every two years, they focus chiefly on whether shops are clean and licenses are posted.

As Boston's health department presses to improve working conditions in nail salons, officials realize they must contend with a swirl of economic and cultural forces.

Nail shops are a powerful economic engine in the Vietnamese community; national studies estimate that four of every 10 nail technicians are Vietnamese. And owners already feel besieged by price wars ignited by a proliferation of shops.

"You can't just come in and shut them down or scare away their customers, because this is their livelihood," said Roelofs, who is working as an adviser to the city.

At Tammy's Nails, as dusk fell one recent afternoon, Susie Stewart-Branch sat with her hands dangling on a table. Mai Vo, a technician, took a whirring, handheld sander to the customer's nails, a cloud of filings rising.

Stewart-Branch came to have her eyebrows waxed and her fingernails and toenails coated in a subtle pink called Cotton Candy. Total cost: $60.

Funny you should ask about the safety of salon workers, Stewart-Branch said, "because I was just thinking about it. They've been here all day. We just come in for a few minutes, maybe half an hour. So we're not that affected."

What she likes, Stewart-Branch said, is that the owner of the shop tries to keep a door open for fresh air. And workers plop cotton balls and other cosmetic-laden waste into plastic jugs, to prevent chemical odors from lingering.

Ly smiles broadly as customers gaze approvingly at their fingers and toes. Her own nails, cut short, bear no trace of polish.

"I take care of my customers' nails," Ly said, her voice tired. "No time for mine."

Stephen Smith can be reached at

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