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Encore: California Nail Salons Start To Invest In Worker Safety

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

There's been little regulation of the chemicals used in nail salons, even though many have been linked to serious health problems. In California, one program is trying to change that by asking nail-salon owners to voluntarily improve safety. Jenny Gold explains.

JENNY GOLD, BYLINE: The first thing you notice when you walk into Mai Dang's nail salon on a busy street in Berkeley is what's missing, the stinging smell of nail products. That wasn't always the case. For a decade, Dang suffered from the effects of the chemicals she worked with.

MAI DANG: (Through interpreter) When you do nails, workers get itchy skin and watery eyes.

GOLD: Like more than 80 percent of California's nail-salon workers, Dang is Vietnamese. She says she used to have frequent headaches. One of her workers developed asthma. So when she heard about a way to improve safety at her salon, she signed up.

DANG: (Through interpreter) I work every day. I need the air to be pure, to be better for me. I have to take care of my health this way.

GOLD: The California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative was started by a community clinic in Oakland called Asian Health Services. Julia Liou is the group's co-founder.

JULA LIOU: Practically every worker was experiencing some kind of health issue. And we realized that this was an epidemic.

GOLD: Some of the chemicals used in nail salons are known to cause skin disorders and breathing problems among workers and possibly even cancer, miscarriages and birth defects. But the government doesn't require salons to minimize the risks. Liou is trying to get salon owners to make changes on their own.

LIOU: We don't want to create a fear where it's like, oh, nail salons are so scary that, you know, people can't go to them. But we want to create a space where both the owner and the customer can feel comfortable.

GOLD: Mai Dang had to make a lot of changes to be certified as a healthy salon, including buying less toxic nail polishes, thinners and removers. She requires her staff to wear gloves and masks when using certain products. And she bought a mechanical ventilation unit.

DANG: (Through interpreter) It sucks in the air when I do artificial nails so the workers don't have to breathe in the toxic chemicals anymore.

GOLD: In 2013 she got a healthy-nail certificate that she hangs in her window. But all these changes haven't come cheap. Dang says the safer products she uses cost about 30 percent more. Overall, she spent about $3,000 on the upgrades. To pay for it, she raised her prices by $2. I asked Dang's customer Genell Johnson whether she was willing to pay more as she sat getting her new set of nails filed.

GENELL JOHNSON: Yes, I would. You get what you pay for. That's what they always say, and it's true.

GOLD: A survey of customers by the collaborative found that 90 percent were willing to pay at least a dollar more for services they knew were healthier. Johnson says she's a regular at Fashion Nails but had no idea it was a healthy salon.

JOHNSON: Now I'm going to spread the word. This will be a perfect place, knowing that they're so health conscious.

GOLD: That's exactly what salons like Fashion Nails are hoping - that customers will vote with their feet. But there's a long way to go. There are more than 8,000 nail salons in California. And so far, only 120 have joined the program. Still, they're making progress. The EPA recently gave the Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative a grant to help offer microloans to salons that want to upgrade their safety. For NPR News, I'm Jenny Gold. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.