US nail salons: the challenge to protect workers from chemicals

San Francisco (The Guardian, Nov 28,2017): Each time Van Nguyen got pregnant, her doctor advised her either to stop working at the San Francisco nail salon she owns – or have an abortion.

But Nguyen wanted to keep her babies and couldn’t afford to stop working. So she avoided seeing doctors throughout her four pregnancies, despite experiencing significant bleeding during all four, and miscarriages during two.

“It’s not their fault, it’s my fault,” the 46-year-old said through a translator of the doctors whose advice she didn’t want to take. “This is what I chose to do for a living, so I have to live with it.”

Nguyen is one of thousands of Vietnamese immigrants in California, most of them women, who work 12-hour days in storefront salons providing customers with the quintessential “affordable luxury” – manicures and pedicures.

But unlike workers at many nail salons, Nguyen said she no longer experiences the headaches, respiratory problems, reproductive issues and rashes that some research links to the chemicals found in common nail products. The air at New York Salon on San Francisco’s Mission street smells fresh, workers attend to customers’ nails while wearing gloves and face masks, and elephant trunk-esque tubes hang over each manicure table, sucking away noxious vapors.

Nguyen adopted these practices thanks to the work of the California Healthy Nail Collaborative, a grassroots organization founded in 2005 to address what co-founder Julia Liou described as an “epidemic” of health problems among the Vietnamese immigrants who overwhelmingly own and staff California’s more than 9,000 nail salons. The group’s work – which has included establishing guidelines for “healthy nail salons” – was recognized in November 2016 when the Environmental Protection Agency’s office of environmental justice awarded it a $120,000 grant over two years to pilot a micro-loan program.

The micro-loans – usually $5,000 or less – are intended to help salon owners like Nguyen afford the new products, training and ventilation machines required to be designated a “healthy” salon.

They’ve also become something of a punchline for conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation, which has repeatedly singled the grant out as an example of wasteful government spending. The group called for eliminating the EPA’s entire budget for environmental justice programs, about $7m per year, citing the nail salon grant as an example of a project “completely unrelated to environmental justice”.

Spending $60,000 a year for two years on the health of nail salon workers seems relatively minor considering that, as of August, the Secret Service had already spent $60,000 renting golf carts to protect Donald Trump when he visits his own golf clubs. But the entire office of environmental justice was indeed targeted for elimination in Trump’s proposed budget.

“It’s no secret on where the Trump administration is getting their ideas,” wrote Mustafa Santiago Ali, a former senior official at the EPA’s office of environmental justice, in the Guardian. “They are running a systematic playbook put together by the Heritage Foundation.”

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