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Nail Salon Workers’ Reproductive Health Crisis Exposed in New Report

Nail salon workers have a higher rate of miscarriages and birth defects in their children due to the chemicals used in their workplaces.

Amir Khafagy

Apr 30, 2024

nail salon health worker Trabajadoras de salones de manicura denuncian problemas en su salud reproductiva por el incumplimiento de las regulaciones de ventilación.

NY, NY- USA July 17, 2020 A woman has her nails done at a Nail Salon in midtown on July 17, 2020 in New York city. Photo: Shutterstock

In the span of eight years, Pabitra Dash said she suffered seven miscarriages. Speaking with Documented in 2022, Dash, a Nepali nail salon worker, attributed her string of miscarriages to the daily exposure of toxic chemicals present in the nail polishes and glues she inhaled while working at various nail salons. 

Now a new report by the New York Healthy Nail Salons Coalition confirms that many of the mostly immigrant women workers like Dash have experienced complications during pregnancy because of their routine exposure to toxic chemicals while working at nail salons.

The coalition surveyed 312 women nail salon workers in New York between June 2022 and March 2024 and found that the workers had a higher prevalence of reproductive health issues than the general U.S. population. Nail salon workers are often exposed to chemicals like dibutyl phthalate, a common ingredient in nail polish known to cause miscarriages.

Nearly 18% of the workers surveyed expressed that they had complications during their pregnancy. Only about 8% of U.S. pregnancies involve any complications, according to the report. Additionally, 7% of those surveyed stated that their children were born with abnormalities, whereas in the general U.S. population, only 2% to 3% of babies exhibit one or more defects at birth.

Also Read: Caribbean Doulas Empower Black Women And Their Maternal Health Journeys in NYC

Janeth Ulloa, whose experience was cited in the report, worked in a nail salon for three years, including several months while she was pregnant with her son. Soon after his birth, she said her son began to exhibit speech and other developmental issues associated with autism.   

“I did a genetic study to see if it came from our bloodlines and they told me that it was an environmental issue and that I did something wrong while I was pregnant,” said Ulloa in the report. 

The link between autism and long-term chemical exposure is nothing new. A 2018 study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that women workers exposed to chemicals commonly found in nail polish and cleaning products are 50% more likely to have a child born with autism than those without occupational exposure. 

Another study by the University of Toronto found that nail salon workers are frequently exposed to dangerous levels of flame retardants and plasticizers that are known to be deadly in high doses and pose a significant risk to an infant’s neurodevelopment and neurological functions. The researchers also linked frequent chemical exposure to low birth weights in infants and decreased memory in children. One chemical, dibutyl phthalate, which is common in nail polish, has been banned in the European Union due to the potential risk of harming women’s fertility.  

The survey found that only 46% of workers stated that their workplace lacked a proper ventilation system. In 2016, former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo enacted a landmark ventilation law that mandated salons to install ventilation systems that would filter out hazardous chemicals. However, the survey indicates that the law has yet to make a significant impact on many workers’ lives. 

Also Read: Nail Salon Workers Say Proper Ventilation Can Protect Their Reproductive Health

Still, 40% of workers surveyed said that they routinely smell chemical odors in their salons, and another 35% said there were strong odors at work but over time they have become habituated to it. 

To make nail salons a safer place to work, the report authors call for robust policy changes that would restructure the nail salon industry in the state. One way that could be achieved would be the passage of the Nail Salon Minimum Standards Council Act. The proposed law would set standard wages and institute uniform industry standards and regulations around health and safety. 

“New York prides itself on being a national leader in protecting reproductive justice, but there is an area where we are still falling short,” said New York State Senator Jessica Ramos, Chair of the Senate Labor Committee and lead sponsor of the legislation, in a statement. “The nail salon workforce, largely comprised of immigrant women of color, are exposed to such severe occupational health risks that we need to take seriously.”

The report also calls for strengthened enforcement and compliance in nail salons with existing laws around ventilation. According to the report, wage theft and health and safety violations in the nail salon industry are rampant. The authors of the report are also calling for more proactive investigations and enforcement as well as the incorporation of comprehensive compliance, monitoring, and enforcement plans in the nail salon business licensing process.

Amir Khafagy

Amir Khafagy is an award-winning New York City-based journalist. He is currently a Report for America corps member with Documented. Much of Amir's beat explores the intersections of labor, race, class, and immigration.




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