Toxic Chemicals Found in “Non-Toxic” Nail Polishes

Many nail polishes used in salons are advertised as being free of three toxic chemicals (the “toxic trio”).  However, a random sampling showed high levels of these toxic chemicals present, California officials say.

State investigators from the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) randomly analyzed a variety of 25 brands of nail products, which are commonly used in more than 48,000 salons in California. These included some that claimed to be free of the chemicals toluene, dibutyl phthalate (DBT), and formaldehyde, which are known as the “toxic three.”

Exposure to large amounts of these chemicals has been linked to developmental problems, asthma, and other illnesses. The DTSC said that all three chemicals are linked to chronic health conditions when inhaled, and that the 121,000 licensed nail care technicians who work in the salons, many of them are young, Asian-American women, are most at risk.

Toluene was found in 10 of the 12 products that claimed to be free of this chemical, and four other products had dangerously high levels of toluene. Five of seven products claiming to be “free of the toxic three” included high levels of one or more of the chemicals in significant levels, as reported by the Associated Press.

The DTSC report determined that the mislabeled nail products have the potential to harm thousands of women who work in more than 48,000 nail salons in California, as well as all of their customers.

The use of the three chemicals is not illegal, if labeled properly. But Agency officials said that the false claims might be a violation of a state law requiring disclosure of harmful chemicals in consumer products. The state attorney general’s office will have a final decision on whether or not the companies will face legal action.

The agency stated that most of the salons are poorly ventilated, leading to exposure of a number of harmful chemicals.

Due to the health issues involving the workplace, some states have passed laws for the safety of workers and customers in nail salons.

San Francisco passed an ordinance in October, 2010, giving a “green seal” to salons who voluntarily choose to use nail polishes that are free of the three chemicals included in the DTSC’s report. New York City had a similar ordinance, recognizing the salons that choose products that are completely toxic-free.

No one is taking responsibility for the harmful products that were found. The nail salons claim that they received the products direct from manufacturers. The products, which tested positive for the toxic chemicals, are not sold in retail stores.  A salon owner of Happy Nails in Salinas, CA, says that she can only control the ventilation and the sterilization of equipment, and cannot force manufacturers to accurately label products.  The DTSC found that one of the nail polish that was tested contained traces of toluene, even though it was labeled as chemical-free. The manufacturer of that company, Mike Vo, said that he has no idea where the toluene could have come from. He states, “Perhaps the polish was contaminated through the lab tests or by some other method.”

Julia Liou, co-founder of the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative, and a public health administrator for Asian Health Services, stated how surprised she is by the results of the report. She said, “The misbranding of products is not only a major public health problem, but also interferes with a salon worker’s right to a safe and healthy work environment.”

DBP was banned in nail products in the European Union almost ten years ago, due to their strict limitations on formaldehyde and toluene usage. It should be banned in the United States, as well. Is it really necessary to use these chemicals in nail products?

Proposition 65 is a state law requiring that all harmful chemicals used in a product be revealed by the manufacturer. It also requires that warning signs be posted in areas where consumers may be exposed. But the problem with this proposition being enforced is that the salons claim that they are purchasing toxic-free supplies from manufacturers. The manufacturers swear they do not use any of the toxic chemicals in their products, even though testing of their products clearly shows their presence.

A legal expert on environmental law said that if the attorney general decides to act on this report, and nail polish makers are unsuccessful at fighting it, “the retailers and manufacturers of these products may be subject to litigation and liability exposure.”

It is great that the California DTSC is trying to protect consumers, as well as nail salon workers, but maybe they need to ban these dangerous chemicals completely, like they did in Europe. If they are known to be toxic, why are they legal as long as properly labeled? There is no benefit in using these toxic products.

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