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New health rules for nail salons OK’d

By Stephen Smith
Globe Staff / January 14, 2011

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Boston health regulators moved last night to improve safety conditions in the dozens of nail salons dotting the city, forbidding reuse of emery boards, mandating regular cleaning of gurgling foot baths, and urging better ventilation.

The unanimous vote by the Boston Public Health Commission addresses longstanding concerns about the safety of salon workers and their customers, who can be exposed to germs when implements aren’t cleaned thoroughly and to toxic fumes from nail polish and other chemical-laden beauty products.

“We’re doing this to improve the health of the worker and the health of the client,’’ said Tiffany Skogstrom, the health department’s Safe Nail Salon Project coordinator.

The commission embarked on a campaign three years ago to improve health conditions in salons and, in the process, heard the stories of workers who complained of throbbing headaches, teary eyes, and cramping hands.

The regulations, which go into effect in July and carry penalties as high as $300 for violations, have largely received a warm welcome from salon owners. The health commission worked closely with the advocacy group VietAID in drafting the rules; Boston salons are overwhelmingly staffed by women from Southeast Asia.

Thy Son, owner of Thy Nails & Skin Care Salon on Newbury Street, said the rule requiring that foot baths be sterilized between customers will guarantee “they’re clean for everyone.’’

City regulators acknowledged that the new safeguards may result in higher prices, and Son said she wishes she could boost her fees.

“I really want to, but you can’t do that because if you want to raise it, nobody will come,’’ Son said.

A study of Boston-area nail salon workers, published in 2007 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 for the day, according to the study, led by Cora R. Roelofs, a University of Massachusetts Lowell researcher. Similarly, 31 workers reported headaches that eased only after their shift ended. Earlier studies found that salon workers have an elevated risk of respiratory, skin, and neurological ailments.

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 workers face a toxic mix of long workdays, poor on-the-job conditions, and a stew of chemicals adding up to danger.

The threat extends to clients, as well. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has investigated outbreaks of bacterial infections linked to tainted foot spas at nail salons.

The regulations adopted last night require salons to secure a permit from the city health agency, in addition to their state license. Chemicals must be properly labeled and stored, and salon workers must wear gloves when handling toxic substances.

Rules governing ventilation were kept vague, reflecting the difficulty of setting a single standard for an industry that operates in basements, storefronts, and hotels. Instead, salons are required to draft a plan to improve ventilation and reduce chemical vapors.

“Is there something you consider ideal?’’ Harold Cox, a member of the Public Health Commission and an associate dean at the Boston University School of Public Health, asked the agency’s attorney. “Certainly, leaving the door open is not ideal.’’

The attorney acknowledged the health department will have to collaborate with salon owners to devise ventilation plans that are both protective and practical.

Stephen Smith can be reached at stsmith@globe.com.