Public Advocate Finds Nail-biter Signature Issue

A Personal Perspective

Public Advocate Letitia James brought an important issue to light this week and it stands to protect the public from harm right along with employees in that industry.

An investigation by James’ office found that there is little regulation in the nail salon business and that customers are at risk of infection and dangers from chemicals in the products used to create those elegant digits we love so much. The investigation also revealed that not only are customers’ health at risk, but that the technicians’ health are also at risk due to the poorly ventilated work rooms.

Nail salon workers spend untold hours working and breathing in the potentially toxic fumes of their trade each day. They are mostly immigrants, many brand new to the country and speaking very little English. Most have limited employment options and this unregulated industry leaves them unprotected by City/State health board regulations.

Customers are also at risk of infection from unsterilized instruments, toxic chemicals applied to hands and nails, and indeed, the same fumes the workers are inhaling from the toxic products. Kudos to Ms. James for taking on this issue!

This issue was a perfect storm and our advocate has put the spotlight on it with the goal of fixing the problem, not cause trouble for small business owners and their employees.

So how did we manage to go unprotected for so long with this beauty routine?

According to James, there are more than 5,000 nails salons State-wide and we have only 27 inspectors in the entire state. Add to that, the James report says that of 10,000 chemicals in nail products, only 11 percent have been tested.

That is an alarming figure. This lack of oversight leaves both the public and the workers who serve them at risk for serious health consequences.

I usually enter these salons for my eyebrows only, but as someone with a sensitive lower respiratory system, I sometimes couldn’t even stay long enough for that brief eyebrow waxing due to the fumes. I stopped going a few years ago when my husband got me a really great kit with a 5X magnifier. The advocate’s investigation and actions in progress is welcome news.

According to the report, some nail salon chemicals are so dangerous that they have been suspected of being cancer-causing and could even have a negative impact on fetuses and reproductive health. The State has failed us in this matter. Nail salons are liberally scattered throughout my community and are very liberally supported by our women. To now know that both they, and the women – and men – who wait on them have been at serious risk is very alarming.

And this is why there is a public advocate. It is unfortunate that Michael Bloomberg gutted that office when he became mayor 12 years ago. The expense of running a successful Public Advocate Office is one of necessity and should not be at the mercy of anyone who thinks it is unnecessary. It should be equitably funded so it can be fully staffed to serve the public good. The Office of the Public Advocate is our official watch dog and no one is more doggedly determined than James is.

During his four-year tenure, Bill de Blasio tried his best to make it work. His signature issue was fighting hospital closings; and James too, is committed to that issue. But she probably has personal experience with nail salons.

Her strategy to advocate for both sides – the women and men, who frequent the salons and the unsuspecting workers, is admirably balanced. Those workers have no choice but to sit there all day six to seven days per week inhaling the harmful chemicals in poorly ventilated spaces. All workers deserve protection from harmful conditions in their places of employment and nail salon workers are no exception.

By bringing this into the open, James will have saved lives and health. She is doing her job and we are thankful for that.

Way to go, Tish!

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