Anyone who's ever stepped inside a nail salon knows the smell of fumes and chemicals can be overwhelming. But thanks to a new Environmental Protection Agency program, local salons may be able to reduce their level of toxins.
The EPA has awarded two local nonprofit groups a $100,000 grant to help reduce toxin exposure in their salons. The Environmental Coalition of South Seattle and Community Coalition for Environmental Justice will research chemicals that are safer to use inside salons.
In low-income and communities of color in and around South Seattle, the "Toxic Beauty" Project will work with more than 70 Vietnamese-owned and operated nail salons to reduce exposure of toxins to workers and their patrons.
"It is an interesting environmental justice issue because it crosses ethnic boundaries to a large degree. We have a lot of Vietnamese women that are the salon owners and operators and a lot of African American women as clientele," Cunniff said.
The EPA's Environmental Justice Program supports environment and public health improvements in low-income communities.
"We have these kinds of awards that we give out for looking at environmental justice communities and look at collaboration we can have in advancing pubic health and environmental issues," said Elin Miller, the EPA's Northwest regional administrator. "This grant is focusing particularly on reducing exposures in nail salons. It will help South Seattle salon owners, technicians and neighbors make changes to reduce their exposure to nail salon toxics."
The three-year grant was given under the EPA's Environmental Justice Collaborative Problem-Solving program, which funds affected communities develop new approaches to environmental justice issues and to achieve healthy communities across the nation.
"Our work with the nail salons is to find out what kind of products they are using now, look at their ventilation system and work with the distributors to see if alternative products are available at a reasonable price," said Charlie Cunniff, executive director of the Environmental Coalition of South Seattle.
Cunniff's group will work with the shop owners and workers while the Community Coalition for Environmental Justice will focus on the clientele, educating them on issues about toxicity and the products that are used, so they may ask salon owners to change their practices or use alternative healthier products.
Flower Tiatsoa, owner of Hollywood Nails on Rainier Avenue, says she has already made significant changes to her nail salon.
"When I first opened the shop 17 years ago, I talked with King County and had a big fan put inside the shop up above where nobody can see it, but it makes a big difference," Tiatsoa said. She also keeps the door open in the summer time and also runs an additional fan to keep fresh air circulating in the salon.
Simple fixes include disposing of solvent-soaked cotton balls in closed containers after using them; and using pump systems to distribute small amounts of polish remover instead of using an open bottle. Then there are more complex fixes, such as installing ventilation systems to clean the indoor air. Cunniff said some shops may have to install proper ventilation systems and there is a local business management waste program they are working with to help with the cost.
"Sometimes women are pregnant or they may bring their babies in the salons and we don't think that's good, particularly if there are toxic products in the air," Cunniff added.
"It is an environmental project, but it's also a public health project to help create healthier conditions for both the workers and the clients."