Some nail polishes commonly found in salons and advertised as free of so-called "toxic-trio" of chemicals actually have high levels of agents linked to birth defects.
The California Department of Toxic Substances Control was the first to report this in April and determined that the mislabeled nail polish products have the potential to harm thousands of women who work in more than 48,000 nail salons in California, along with thousands more nationwide, and their customers.
The use of the three chemicals in nail polish is not illegal if properly labeled. But agency officials said the false claims may be a violation of a state law that requires disclosure of harmful chemicals in consumer products. The final decision on whether the companies will face legal action, which includes fine and an order to attach warning labels to their products, will be made by the California state attorney general's office.
Investigators chose 25 brands at random, including a number of products claiming to be free of the chemicals toulene, dibutyl phthalate, and formaldehyde, which are known as the toxic-trio. Regulators said exposure to large amounts of the chemicals has been linked to developmental problems, asthma, and other illnesses.
Investigators found that five of the seven products that claimed to be free of the toxic three actually included one or more of the agents in significant levels. The agency said that it did not have enough data to accurately estimate how many people were being exposed to the chemicals through the products. "We know there are exposures at salons, both to workers and customers, and we're concerned about potential harm," said Karl Palmer, the DTSC's pollution prevention performance manager who oversaw the report.
"Our strategy first and foremost is to shed light on the reality of what's in these products and put this information out to everyone."
The DTSC said all three chemicals are linked to chronic health conditions when inhaled, and that the 121,000 licensed nail care technicians who work in the salons, many of them young Asian-American women, are most at risk.
The agency said the salons are poorly ventilated, leading to exposure to a number of harmful chemicals. Because of these workplace health issues, some cities around the nation have passed laws seeking safety for workers and customers at nail salons.
San Francisco passed an ordinance in October 2010 that acknowledges salons that voluntarily choose to use nail polishes free of the three chemicals included in the DTSC's report. New York City had a similar ordinance to recognize salons that choose products devoid of the toxic trio.
"We are alarmed by the results of this report," Julia Liou, co-founder of the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative and a public health administrator for Asian Health Services, said in a statement. "The misbranding of products is not only a major public health problem, but also interferes with a salon worker's right to a safe and healthy work environment."
DBP has been banned in nail products in the European Union and the EU has strict limits on the amount of formadehyde and toulene that can be used.
Doug Schoon, a scientist who works with the Nail Manufacturers Council, agreed that mislabeling products should never be done, but said that proper ventilation and training of salon workers are much more important to preventing negative health effects. He said the level of toulene and other chemicals found in the nail polishes featured in the report do not pose a serious threat. He said the "need for appropriate ventilation for the work you're doing, whether it be in printing shops or other workplaces, is a huge area of opportunity that the DTSC should be focusing on."
The California attorney general's office said it will have to review DTSC's findings before making a decision on any legal action. "We will have to examine the data for compliance with Prop. 65 and other state laws," said Lynda Gledhill, spokeswoman for the attorney general's office.
Mike Vo, vice-president of Miss Professional Nail Products, Inc., the maker of Station products and others on the list, said he disputed the DTSC's findings. "We will look at the report and challenge it," he said.
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