BY ABBY VOGEL
TIMES-DISPATCH STAFF WRITER Jul 19, 2005
ANNANDALE -- One person's beautiful fingernails can be hazardous to another person's health.
Add a language barrier to the mix, and the possibilities for problems increase.
Reaching out to the large population of Vietnamese nail technicians, the Environmental Protection Agency hosted a pair of workshops yesterday with the instructions given in Vietnamese.
"I like that they came to our area and told us about the regulations and safety information in our native language," said Yen Phan, a nail technician from Silver Spring, Md. "I probably would not have come if not."
The EPA's nail-salon initiative began in 1999 with the Vietnamese community in Houston and has expanded nationwide to areas like Northern Virginia. Officials estimate that 35 percent to 40 percent of technicians at nail shops nationwide are Vietnamese and that most do not speak or read English.
And even though Virginia's nail-technician licensing requires passing examinations given in English, officials say there are still concerns about technicians being overexposed to hazardous substances.
Many Vietnamese become nail technicians because "it's easy to make money, there is little education required and they don't have to learn English," said Lisa Pham, the EPA engineer who conducted the workshops. "But they are not educated about the best practices around chemicals."
Nail shops use a dizzying and dangerous array of chemicals. Technicians breathe and touch such hazardous chemicals as toluene, butyl-methacrylate, titanium dioxide and di-n-butylphthalate. Overexposure can cause occupational asthma, eye and skin irritation, headaches, dizziness, nausea and reproductive disorders.
EPA experts give out safety sheets that explain the risks, precautions and actions related to exposure to chemicals from nail hardeners, artificial nails, polishes, drying agents and polish removers.
But "three things make the [safety] sheets useless," said Pham. "They are written only in English, there is not one standard format and they are written in a technical language." Another problem: Toll-free numbers given for more information are answered by English-speaking personnel.
Some in attendance were more aware of the dangers than others.
"I'm not really surprised by what I learned. I knew some of the chemicals caused health problems, but I didn't know what each caused," said Kristie Dang of Centreville.
Dang said she wished more shop owners would support the seminars.
"If the salon owner is cheap, then they do not pay money to support the environment. Some don't care until they come to this kind of class," Dang said.
Technicians were also told about the hazards of bringing children to the salons -- not only because of the chemicals but other risks including ultraviolet lights used to dry nails.
"I was surprised to hear people bring children to the salon. It's too dangerous to bring the baby where they are working," said Kim Nguyen, a Centreville nail technician.
More than half of the 80 or so people attending the two workshops learned about the programs from a letter mailed to local nail salons. Others read or heard advertisements in Vietnamese newspapers and radio stations.
"I got the brochure in the mail and wanted to come see what they were talking about," said Nguyen. "I'm glad I came."
In Virginia, nail technicians must speak enough English to graduate from a training program at a licensed school, which means about 150 hours of training, and pass State Board of Cosmetology theory and practical examinations.
The theory examination includes chemistry questions, with a section on hazardous chemicals in nail products. It also covers correct safety procedures for artificial and natural nail technology.
Even with those requirements, officials said, not all of Virginia's 8,870 licensed nail technicians know enough about the dangers that surround them.
"At the end of the workshop, 100 percent come up to me and say that the information was helpful, and I'm still surprised that most have never seen the safety sheets before," said Pham.