Your Nail Polish and Your Nail Salon Might Be Killing You

© Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times Eugenia Colon holding an X-ray of her lungs from 2010. In the nail salon she owned in Brooklyn, she molded talon-like nails in a haze of acrylic powder, ignoring a persistent cough.
© Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times Eugenia Colon holding an X-ray of her lungs from 2010. In the nail salon she owned in Brooklyn, she molded talon-like nails in a haze of acrylic powder, ignoring a persistent cough.

Each time a customer pulled open the glass door at the nail shop in Ridgewood, Queens, where Nancy Otavalo worked, a cheerful chorus would ring out from where she sat with her fellow manicurists against the wall: “Pick a color!” 

Ms. Otavalo, a 39-year-old Ecuadorean immigrant, was usually stationed at the first table. She trimmed and buffed and chatted about her quick-witted toddler, or her strapping 9-year-old boy. But she never spoke of another dreamed-for child, the one lost last year in a miscarriage that began while she was giving a customer a shoulder massage.

At the second table was Monica A. Rocano, 30, who sometimes brought a daughter to visit. But clients had never met her 3-year-old son, Matthew Ramon. People thought Matthew was shy, but in fact he has barely learned how to speak and can walk only with great difficulty.

A chair down from Ms. Rocano was another, quieter manicurist. In her idle moments, she surfed the Internet on her phone, seeking something that might explain the miscarriage she had last year. Or the four others that came before.

Similar stories of illness and tragedy abound at nail salons across the country, of children born slow or “special,” of miscarriages and cancers, of coughs that will not go away and painful skin afflictions. The stories have become so common that older manicurists warn women of child-bearing age away from the business, with its potent brew of polishes, solvents, hardeners and glues that nail workers handle daily.

A growing body of medical research shows a link between the chemicals that make nail and beauty products useful — the ingredients that make them chip-resistant and pliable, quick to dry and brightly colored, for example — and serious health problems.

Whatever the threat the typical customer enjoying her weekly French tips might face, it is a different order of magnitude, advocates say, for manicurists who handle the chemicals and breathe their fumes for hours on end, day after day.

The prevalence of respiratory and skin ailments among nail salon workers is widely acknowledged. More uncertain, however, is their risk for direr medical issues. Some of the chemicals in nail products are known to cause cancer; others have been linked to abnormal fetal development, miscarriages and other harm to reproductive health.

A number of studies have also found that cosmetologists — a group that includes manicurists, as well as hairdressers and makeup artists — have elevated rates of death from Hodgkin’s disease, of low birth-weight babies and of multiple myeloma, a form of cancer.

But firm conclusions are elusive, partly because the research is so limited. Very few studies have focused on nail salon workers specifically. Little is known about the true extent to which they are exposed to hazardous chemicals, what the accumulated effect is over time and whether a connection can actually be drawn to their health.

The federal law that regulates cosmetics safety, which is more than 75 years old, does not require companies to share safety information with the Food and Drug Administration. The law bans ingredients harmful to users, but it contains no provisions for the agency to evaluate the effects of the chemicals before they are put on shelves. Industry lobbyists have fought tougher monitoring requirements.

Industry officials say their products contain minuscule amounts of the chemicals identified as potentially hazardous and pose no threat.

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Source: The New York Times | SARAH MASLIN NIR

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