By Meda Kisivuli

The nail salon industry has been booming nationwide in the last few decades and employs a large number of immigrant Asian women of childbearing age. Unfortunately, most beauty products are rarely tested for safety and products used in the nail salons contain a wide variety of toxic chemicals such as toluene and formaldehyde in nail polishes. These chemicals are known to cause headaches, nausea, dizziness, cancer, and birth defects. Since most Boston nail salon workers are immigrant Vietnamese women of reproductive age, their exposure to these harmful chemicals is of real concern.

Brandeis University students from the Environmental Health and Justice program recently conducted a study to assess the indoor air quality in nail salons around Boston. This project was done in collaboration with the Boston Public Health Commission’s Safe Nail Salon Project and Viet-AID. The main objectives were to measure the amount of toxic chemical exposure to the workers in the nail salons and the factors that influence the exposure.  They set out to measure the amount of toxins (volatile organic compounds,  “VOCs”), particulate matter and carbon dioxide in order to understand the ventilation rates. The students found out that most of the nail salons were poorly ventilated and had high levels of toxic chemicals and particulate matter that the workers were exposed to for long hours on a daily basis.

The students recommend that the nail salons open doors and windows when the weather permits and if possible, invest in better ventilation equipment to reduce exposure to the chemicals. They also felt it was critical to encourage policy makers to discourage the production and use of toxic chemicals in nail salon products, and encourage manufactures to produce healthier alternatives. A full report is expected in the Spring, 2012. In the meantime, Brandeis students will continue to work with Viet-AID, the Boston Public Health Commission’s Safe Nail Salon Project in partnering with salons to improve air quality, working conditions, and public safety throughout the city.

For more information about the Boston Public Health Commission’s Safe Nail Salon Project, and to download free educational materials and videos, visit or call 617-534-5965.

Meda Kisivuli is an intern at BPHC and a student at Brandeis University majoring in Environmental Studies & Health: Science, Society and Policy.