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Originally published August 5, 2012 at 8:02 PM | Page modified August 6, 2012 at 10:46 AM

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King County project teaches nail-salon techs about job's dangers

Since 2007, Laurie Foster and other project coordinators from the Environmental Coalition of South Seattle have visited more than 200 nail salons throughout the county and educated 700 nail techs at the salons and cosmetology schools about occupational hazards.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Nail technician Victoria Luu paints her client's nails red with a popular long-lasting gel polish.

Though she's worked in the business for 17 years, it's only in the past two years that she's regularly worn a white medical mask and pink nitrile gloves.

The mask and gloves are a few of the safety precautions the Healthy Nail Salon Project, a part of King County's Local Hazardous Waste Management Program, asks nail salons to take to minimize chemical exposure.

Laurie Foster, project coordinator, said nail techs sit in "a stew of solvents all day long with no ventilation. What happens in three weeks is they don't notice the smell anymore, so they think they're fine. But, in reality, they're still breathing in the solvents."

Since 2007, Foster and project coordinators from the Environmental Coalition of South Seattle have visited more than 200 nail salons throughout the county and educated 700 nail techs at the salons and cosmetology schools about occupational hazards.

Dust can fly from filing polished nails, using nail glue and applying acrylic nails. Acetone to remove polish conjures a chemical-laced smell.

Chemicals such as acetone, benzoyl peroxide and titanium dioxide enter the mouth and nose and touch the hands, potentially causing headaches, rashes, breathing difficulty and eye irritation. Also, many salons may be in buildings without proper ventilation, which traps the toxins even more.

"When they use acetone with a cotton ball, when they remove nail polish, they have this cotton ball soaked, then there would be acetone vapors in the salons," Foster said.

A nail tech might see eight clients during a workday, but clients only stay a short time, so any hazard to them is thought to be minimal.

Because of the nature of the work, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) five years ago began to distribute booklets to nail techs and salon owners explaining the hazards and recommended precautions.

"We found if we gave them the document, there was still a language barrier," Foster said. "In 2007, the county realized it was an environmental-justice issue."

NAILS magazine found 45 percent of nail-industry workers nationwide are of Vietnamese descent, which prompted the magazine to add VietSALON magazine. The demographic trend is also seen here, Foster said, so the county focused on reaching its Vietnamese community.

Victoria Luu, 33, and her brother, Robert Luu, 31, took over Sènsé Nail Spa in Shoreline from their mother. While flipping through an issue of NAILS years ago, Robert Luu learned about the King County project.

"Health and safety was our major concern, so our mom can work here. My little brother ran around here playing with toys," said Robert Luu. "We were more concerned with our employees who are here eight to nine hours a day. Our clients stay maybe an hour."

Over the past few years, the salon has adopted new safety measures: The three nail techs wear medical masks and nitrile gloves whenever they are performing a service that could circulate toxic dust. Acetone-saturated cotton balls are placed in a closed tin canister with its contents disposed in the trash every night.

The siblings recently bought a machine that sucks dust downward, away from the breathing zone.

"I would have to go outside to shake it off," said Victoria Luu of the dust that would settle onto her uniform and in her hair. Her hands even developed dark allergy spots.

The masks and gloves, she added, have significantly improved her health. "It's a lot cleaner. Our clients, and us, are not affected by the dust."

The project's voucher incentive reimburses salons up to 50 percent of a $500 maximum for the new safety materials.

In the past few years, many nail-polish companies also have worked to make safer products, eliminating formaldehyde, deemed by the EPA as a possible carcinogen, and toluene and dibutyl phthalate (DBP), both being tested for their health effects.

Kibkabe Araya: 206-464-2266 or karaya@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @kibkabe

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