After working for years in a nail salon, Lan Anh Truong started having strange symptoms: frequent headaches, coughing, and red, irritated eyes. One day, more than a decade ago, she even fainted at her Alameda, Calif., salon.
It never occurred to Truong that frequent exposure to chemicals used in nail polish and removers — first as a technician and then as a salon owner — could be causing her health problems until she made contact with Oakland-based Asian Health Services, whose staff formed the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative after noticing a pattern in the symptoms of salon workers.
After learning that her own symptoms and the health issues of other salon workers could be connected to the products she was using each day with clients, Truong became one of the first to join a growing movement to reduce exposure to hazardous chemicals in salons.
“You have to be aware,” she said of the health issues faced by salon workers. “You have to care.”
Now, the movement to make salons safer for the mostly young immigrant women who work in them may be getting a boost at the federal level. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Nevada Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto last week introduced the Environmental Justice Right to Know Act.
If passed, their bill would direct the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to research ventilation in beauty salons and determine a healthy level of ventilation for workers. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences would be required to report to Congress on the long-term negative health effects of chemicals in beauty products. And the bill would require product manufacturers to provide safety information in multiple languages on their websites.
The proposed law is not just about nail salon workers. It would also require Spanish translations of safety and environmental information on pesticides used in agriculture. But the proposal would be a big boost to a yearslong effort to make salons healthier workplaces.
In 2008, Truong got rid of polish removers that use ethyl and butyl acetate, bought a ventilation unit and began leaving the salon door open during nail services. She said she noticed her own symptoms disappear.
“It’s not because I didn’t care,” Truong said. “I didn’t know what ‘healthy’ is.”