Healthier Nail Salons

  • Jessica Colarossi
| Nov. 21, 2016

Award-Winning Partnership Promotes Environmental Justice and Workers’ Rights

For more than a decade, the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative has sought to improve the health, safety, and rights of low-paid, vulnerable immigrant workers in a poorly regulated part of the beauty care industry. A recent Harvard Kennedy School panel discussion on "Toxic Beauty: Environmental Justice and Workers' Rights," featured the innovative California initiative and its selection as the winner of the 2016 Roy Family Award for Environmental Partnership.

Watch the full recording of the panel discussion:

Lawyer Catherine Porter, the Collaborative’s policy director, told the HKS audience about the challenges the program has faced, including her own bizarre experience with a nail polish manufacturing representative at a roundtable on the safety of common salon products. "I didn’t know where he was going with this, but he asked me to pick a color," she recalled.  Then "he said, 'my product is so safe I’ll drink it," so he picked up the color and poured some into his mouth. Then another representative did the same," said Porter.

She was shocked.

No, nail polish is not safe to drink. Products in nail salons across the country can contain harmful chemicals, solvents, and volatile organic compounds known to pose hazards to human health and the environment. For example, a toxic trio of dibutyl phthalate, toluene, formaldehyde, is found in many brands of polish. Safety concerns arose because of reports of health problems among salon workers and owners, such as rashes, headaches, dizziness and respiratory problems. These problems could be related to daily, frequent occupational exposure to toxic chemicals, often in poorly ventilated salon workspaces, says the Collaborative, which is promoting safer health and safety practices. It is also pressing for research on chronic health effects, including possible adverse reproductive outcomes, from long-term workplace exposures.

Started in 2005, the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative is comprised of 40 organizational members and fiscally sponsored by Oakland, CA-based Asian Health Services agency. In 2009, the Nail Salon Collaborative launched a campaign to partner with California government agencies. The resulting California Healthy Nail Salon Program now includes five California counties and cities in the San Francisco Bay Area, as well as Santa Monica in southern California. At a special HKS dinner following the November 14 panel, the 2016 Roy Award recognizing this partnership was presented to 10 representatives from the California program. The prestigious award is given every two years to an outstanding public-private partnership project that enhances environmental quality.

"I think we really want our program to be a model for our nation, for other states to adopt as well," said Julia Liou, co-founder of the Nail Salon Collaborative, and Planning and Development Director for Asian Health Services.

About 97 percent of salon workers in the U.S. are women and up to 80 percent of manicurists and cosmetologists in California are Vietnamese immigrants. More than 50 percent of these workers are of reproductive age. Even though more than 400,000 individuals are formally employed in the nail salon sector in the U.S., excluding thousands of independent contractors, there is very little federal and state oversight of chemical use and exposure in the nail salon sector.

Building the Collaborative, which began in San Francisco, required meeting frequently with salon workers—even if that meant making an appointment for a manicure—to establish a relationship, listen to their stories and experiences, and keep voices of the workers at the center of their mission.

"This partnership demonstrates the power of community engagement in adopting policies that protect the environment and public health," said Henry Lee, director of the Environment and Natural Resources Program (ENRP) at HKS's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. ENRP administers the Roy Award and hosted the panel and dinner. "In the absence of federal enforcement and support, these types of initiatives will be more important than ever," he said.

Marshall Ganz, HKS Senior Lecturer in Public Policy, moderated the panel and took questions from the audience, many of which focused on passing progressive policy in Republican-led states, pushing environmental justice policies in urban areas, and continuing progress with these issues despite the incoming Trump administration.

"Really, [the election results] require all of us coming together and really building alliances," said Collaborative co-founder Liou, one of four panelists. "Maybe we can create an even greater openness to move forward, and we can push to make sure what we’ve set in place does not get eroded completely." The other panelists, Matthew Tejada, Director of the Office of Environmental Justice at the federal Environmental Protection Agency; Natalicia Tracy, Executive Director of the Brazilian Worker Center in Boston; and Trip Van Noppen, President of Earthjustice, had similarly hopeful and proactive remarks.

"We really need to take advantage of progressive legislatures and local governments that have progressive city councils and board members to try to get some work done and try to stem the tide of what might trickle down from the federal level," Collaborative policy director Porter commented after the panel discussion.

The Collaborative recently made a big step forward in California with the passing of AB 2125, the Healthy Nail Salon Recognition Program. This legislation, signed into law in September, 2016, by California Gov. Jerry Brown, requires the California Department of Toxic Substances Control to publish guidelines for cities and counties to voluntarily implement local healthy nail salon recognition programs.

"What was really wonderful about our bill, and I'm sure it's because it’s this great voluntary recognition program, is that we had almost unanimous support from both Republicans and Democrats," said Porter. "Hopefully we can really ramp up these programs to push industry to make healthier products."

For more information on this publication: Please contact Environment and Natural Resources
For Academic Citation: Colarossi, Jessica. “Healthier Nail Salons.” News, , November 21, 2016.

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