October 1, 2007 The Pump Handle 0Comment

In an article in the 10/8 issue of The Nation, Virginia Sole-Smith reports that many U.S. nail salon workers are concerned about the health effects of the products they use – but gaps in research and regulatory agency responsibilities make it hard for the workers to protect themselves. 

The vast majority of the U.S.’s 380,000 nail technicians are women, and their average annual salary is less than $17,000; about 40 percent are Vietnamese immigrants who earn as little as $50 for an eight- to ten-hour day, Sole-Smith reports. They’re exposed to a lot of chemicals on the job:

In fact, the cosmetology industry uses more than 10,000 chemicals in its products, 89 percent of which have not been evaluated for safety, according to the nonprofit Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, which corrals available evidence in its Skin Deep database (cosmeticsdatabase.com). The polishes, acrylics and other products used in nail salons contain some twenty chemicals flagged as having “potential symptoms and health effects” by the Environmental Protection Agency. The list includes solvents like acetone, which may cause central nervous system depression, and ethyl methacrylate, linked to eye, skin and respiratory tract irritation. It also highlights chemicals banned by the European Union and since removed by international brands like OPI, Sally Hansen and Revlon. Those include formalin, which may cause asthma-like respiratory problems and cancer in high or prolonged doses, and toluene, a solvent with the potential to cause dizziness, headaches and liver and kidney damage. Perhaps most contentious of all is dibutyl phthalate, a plasticizer that makes nail polish more flexible. It has been linked to eye and upper respiratory system irritation and may be toxic to the reproductive system.
“Most kinds of house paint are less toxic than what you find in nail polish,” says Cora Roelofs, ScD, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, whose research has documented acute health problems like skin irritations and asthma among nail salon workers in the Boston area. “Yet we still know very little about more serious health effects, nor do we understand how these chemicals interact with each other in the salon environment.”

Sole-Smith reports that there’s a lack of knowledge about reproductive toxicity, which is one of salon workers’ top concerns. Meanwhile, the FDA has to rely on an industry-funded scientific panel for safety assessments. The agency has restricted only nine chemicals for use in cosmetics, while the European Union’s Cosmetics Directive has banned 1,200.

Part of the issue is fragmented regulatory jurisdiction. While the FDA can address products’ ingredients, the EPA is responsible for indoor air quality, and OSHA sets permissible exposure limits for workers – and Sole-Smith cites concerns about OSHA’s PELs, too:

… the EPA evaluates a chemical’s health risks based on whether it exceeds OSHA’s permissible exposure limits, developed for industrial settings. As [Dr. John Meyer of the Division of Occupational and Environmental Medicine at the University of Connecticut Health Center] notes, “These standards are designed to prevent acute problems like neurological intoxication or respiratory difficulty that develop soon after a large dose. They aren’t set up to assess cancer and chronic disease which develop from long-term, low-dose exposure.” Many of the standards also haven’t changed since OSHA first set limits in 1968, when the populations it studied were mostly male. “They don’t take into account female reproductive health issues,” says Meyer.

EPA has published a 21-page guide entitled “Protecting the Health of Nail Salon Workers.” Its recommendations include installing ventilation systems and using dust masks and gloves, but Sole-Smith notes that nail salons, many of which are already engaged in cutthroat competition, will find it hard to afford ventilation systems and will be reluctant to use masks and gloves for fear of scaring customers.

In California, a coalition of nonprofits is conducting outreach to salons about best practices and is preparing to publish a baseline study of nail salon workers’ health. California’s Safe Cosmetics Act, which went into effect at the start of 2007, requires manufacturers to disclose all potentially harmful products ingredients to the state health department, and Washington state is considering a similar law. But Sole-Smith concludes that “what salon workers really need is a federal law requiring the FDA, EPA and OSHA to hold the beauty industry to a much tougher standard, and more scientific research to pin down exactly what they’re up against.”

That may be what salon workers need, but getting these agencies to do anything about the beauty industry will be tough. The FDA already lacks the resources to address today’s food safety challenges; the EPA can’t get sufficient toxicity data on all of the high production volume chemicals used in the U.S.; and it evidently takes an act of Congress to get OSHA to address a serious workplace hazard.

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