How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

In Vietnamese nail salons, a push to breathe easier

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Bianca Alatorre is not a fan of the overpowering smell of chemicals in nail salons. "Just being in there for me is really hard," she said.

But as Alatorre sat for a manicure at Nancy's Nails on Pico Boulevard in Santa Monica, she noticed something different.

She sniffed the air — and.... "Nothing."

To improve air quality, the salon owners had opened the front and rear doors, letting fumes from glue and nail polish out, as the sounds of traffic and sidewalk chatter rolled in. 

It's one of the steps that Nancy's Nails has taken as the California Healthy Nail Salons Collaborative. The nonprofit program works to improve health conditions at manicure shops, the vast majority of which are run by Vietnamese immigrants.

"In California, 60 to 80 percent of the 97,000 nail salon workers are of Vietnamese descent," said Duyen Tran, a Vietnamese-speaking educator with the collaborative.

Santa Monica, home to about 30 nail salons, is the first city in Southern California to partner with the collaborative.

Participants agree to do things like improving ventilation, use more protective nitrile gloves and switch out nail polishes containing known carcinogens for safer products.

"Before we buy $1 a bottle but right now we pay $5 a bottle," said Chau Nguyen, who owns Nancy's Nails with his wife..

The "Toxic Trio"

The couple said it's happy to absorb that increase, because the less toxic environment is good for customers – and for them. Nguyen pulls up his sleeves to show mottled skin on his forearms — the result, he suspects, of 28 years of doing manicures. His wife Phan said the chemicals gave her a runny nose and watery eyes for "many, many years."

"Right now, no more," she said.

There are the short-term effects of the chemicals the Nguyens describe. But the potential long-term effects really worry research scientist Thu Quach of the Fremont-based Cancer Prevention Institute of California, particularly when it comes to three substances known as the "Toxic Trio."

There's "tuloene, which we know is linked to reproductive health problems and then there is formaldehyde which is a known carcinogen," said Quach who oversees research for the collaborative. "Then there’s phthalates which have neurologic links to health.”

Quach said there aren't any good longitudinal studies at this time to show how nail  salons affect health.  But she said reducing exposure to chemicals should start now.

"Especially when you’re looking at chronic illnesses like cancer, it takes about 20 to 30 years for it to develop and really a lot of the work force members have just become manicurists in the last 10-20 years, so there may still be a time lag," Quach said.

A popular calling

If there are long-term effects to working in a nail salon, they will disproportionately affect immigrants from one country.

Tran of the nail salon collaborative said that becoming a manicurist is an easy way for Vietnamese immigrants enter the job market.

"It takes about a year to get a manicurists’ license," Tran said. "Trainings can be done in Vietnamese. And the work doesn’t require a lot of English proficiency outside of customer service.”

For his part, Chau Nyguen went to school to be a nail technician after the man who employed him in the 1980s as an electricians' assistant refused to give him a raise until Nguyen's English had improved to his liking. His wife joined him at the nail salon because it was a faster way to earn a living than to attempt to teach middle school as she had done in Vietnam.

Tran said her sister-in-law, aunts and cousins work as manicurists, and she herself grew up around nail salons.

She said many workers speak little English, so she relies on her Vietnamese during site visits.

"We feel that health and safety information available for this immigrant work force has been very limited, predominantly in English  and so part of our work is expanding access," Tran said.

Starting with Santa Monica

Tran’s group partners with cities as way to encourage nail salon owners to participate. About 25 shops in northern California have signed on, from cities such as Oakland. 

Karl Bruskotter of Santa Monica’s Office of Sustainability and the Environment said the department had been thinking about how to reduce chemical exposure in local nail salons but couldn’t do it without the collaborative.

"Someone coming in that speaks their language - that kind of trustworthiness we don’t have and they do," Bruskotter said.

The city will promote the salons on its website and give out framed certificates.

But giving the time it takes for training and the costs to upgrade product lines and, if necessary, add ventilation systems. Only three other salons have signed up besides Nancy's Nails: Cute Nails, Santa Monica Beach Nail Spa and Tracy's Nail Spa.

These salon owners may see some business advantage. A couple years ago, the nail salon collaborative surveyed hundreds of consumers on the Third Street Promenade. About 95 percent said they would be more likely to go to a less toxic salon.

As Chau Nguyen polished the nails of customer Bianca Alatorre, she said, "I’ll definitely tell my friends. It’s something they would definitely appreciate."

Chau laughed from behind his face mask, and said, thank you. 

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