Report Shines Spotlight on Toxic Chemicals, Worker Abuse Inside Nail Salons

The report named the array of toxic chemicals included in nail care products as the likely culprit for the medical conditions facing salon workers across the country, including chronic respiratory illnesses, skin problems and cancers.

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New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Monday announced sweeping emergency measures in light of reports that detailed health problems and worker exploitation in New York City's nail salons.

An extensive New York Times report chronicled the complications faced by three women that worked at a Queens salon. One stylist's toddler had severe developmental problems; another miscarried and the third had five miscarriages.

The report named the array of toxic chemicals included in nail care products as the likely culprit for the medical conditions facing salon workers across the country, including chronic respiratory illnesses, skin problems and cancers.

The article also detailed the shortcomings of current federal law and the efforts of the cosmetics industry in thwarting further regulation.

The Depression-era Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act bans companies from including harmful ingredients in cosmetics but gives federal regulators limited oversight over those products. Instead, the Cosmetic Ingredient Review evaluates ingredients’ safety despite its close affiliation with the Personal Care Products Council.

A spokeswoman for the cosmetics lobbying group said dibutyl phthalate, toluene and formaldehyde – each common in nail products and linked to serious health complications – “have been found to be safe under current conditions of use in the United States.”

Scientists and health officials disagreed.

“Those chemicals they are dealing with are chemicals that we know people react to, and we are hearing the stories from these workers that they are reacting to them,” said Thu Quach, a researcher at the Cancer Prevention Institute of California that surveyed salon workers in Alameda County.

Moreover, a review by the FDA in 2010 and California regulators in 2012 found evidence of those chemicals in products that previously claimed to eliminate them.

Meanwhile, another Times report uncovered widespread worker abuses among the city's nail salons. Manicurists — mainly immigrants with little command of English — often earned less than minimum wage or were paid only in tips. Some dealt with constant video monitoring, financial penalties or physical abuse.

Cuomo's order launched a multi-agency task force that would, in part, enact new regulations to address the health and safety issues, and create new enforcement actions to resolve unpaid wages.

"We will not stand idly by as workers are deprived of their hard-earned wages and robbed of their most basic rights," Cuomo said in a statement.

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