Apr 03, 2023

Commentary: Chemical exposure imperils nail techs' reproductive health

Customer and manicurist are separated by a plastic barrier at ProNails of Saratoga on June 17, 2020.

At a time when reproductive health, rights and justice are under attack nationwide, New York has an opportunity to advance an agenda that protects the reproductive health of people across the state: improving the workplace conditions at New York's 4,000 nail salons.

That's right: Nail salon workers — who primarily are women of color — are at risk of harm to their reproductive health due to daily exposure to toxic chemicals in glues, polishes, removers and other nail products.

A 2022 survey conducted by the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health revealed that 20 percent of nail salon workers reported having had challenges with their reproductive health, compared with just 11 percent of the general U.S. population of women of reproductive age who have had reproductive health-related issues. Nail techs experience severe pain with menstruation, complications during their pregnancy and birth defects in their children at disturbingly high rates.

A California EPA study confirms that some chemicals in nail products are associated with hazards to human health, including "carcinogenicity, endocrine disruption, developmental and reproductive toxicity, respiratory toxicity" and more. As a result, nail techs are more likely to develop illnesses like cancer and asthma due to dangerous toxins inhaled on the job.

Over the past decade, many nail salon workers have bravely spoken out about the challenges they face in the workplace. Pabitra Dash, a longtime nail salon worker in Queens, has been vocal about the seven miscarriages she suffered in as many years. She has since dedicated her life to fighting for the passage of long-term protections for her coworkers.

No person — regardless of their job title, race, immigration status, income level or geography — should ever be forced to work unprotected from chemicals or in conditions that could impact their reproductive lives. Base coat bottles may warn that prolonged exposure to chemicals can lead to potential birth defects, but without a voice on the job, nail techs are rendered unable to advocate for safety protocols to mitigate the health risks currently present in their salons.

That's why we demand passage of the New York Nail Salon Minimum Standards Council Act, landmark legislation that would protect and empower our state's nail salon industry workforce by granting them a seat at the table alongside government and small-business owners to collaborate on new baseline health, safety and wage standards.

A full defense of human rights requires full reproductive rights — and true reproductive justice means ensuring that every person has access to full bodily autonomy and reproductive freedom. To this end, the Nail Salon Minimum Standards Council Act is central not only to achieving broader economic justice, but also reproductive justice for those who are most vulnerable. The legislation would create a long-term statewide model where these rights are respected, and where every worker can raise their families and retire with dignity.

With every day that passes without the implementation of this bill, we continue to fail tens of thousands of working women. It is our duty to ensure no one is forced to endanger their health, or the health of their families, due to the inaction of the government. We must act now: Nail techs’ fight for health, dignity and justice on the job is a matter of life and death.

State Sen. Nathalia Fernandez of the Bronx represents the 34th Senate District. Elizabeth Estrada is field and advocacy manager for the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice NY.