Nail Salon Workers and Cancer Rates

September 15, 2010

A new study on nail salon workers in California shows that this population is not necessarily at a higher risk for cancer. Read the New America Media story by Ngoc Nguyen:

"For the study, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, researchers obtained files for every person licensed to do nail care in the state since 1970 and linked them to a state database that includes cancer patients from 1988 to 2005. The scientists identified more than 9,000 cancer cases among the state’s 325,228 female licensed manicurists.

Cancer rates among the workers were no higher than in the general population, with two exceptions: thyroid cancer (for both manicurists and hairdressers licensed to do nails) and lung cancer (which was higher only among manicurists).

The percentage of the rate increase 'is too small for me to highlight,' said Dr. Thu Quach, the study’s lead scientist =and a senior researcher at the Fremont, Calif.–based Cancer Prevention Institute of California (CPIC)."

Many nail workers and health advocates have suspected that the chemicals nail salon workers use daily are linked to cancer and other health issues, such as miscarriages and reproductive problems. I wrote about the trend toward "green" nail salons for Hyphen. For some owners, they operate more eco-friendly salons precisely because of the risk that many of the nail salon workers, who are mostly women of child-bearing age, face. 

I haven't seen the study, but based on the story, it seems like things are still inconclusive. In other words, the study hasn't proved that nail salon workers are at a higher risk for cancer, but there are so many variables. 

Studies on environmental health damage—particularly cancer—are really, really tricky and difficult to prove definitively. Remember A Civil Action? What about Kettleman City's cluster of birth defects, as recently detailed in Mother Jones? What about Agent Orange victims in Vietnam? In the end, there are always people and companies who claim that they weren't the ones who caused the problems. It's nearly impossible to prove, scientifically, it seems.

But let's look at what we do know. We know that certain chemicals are carcinogens, such as formaldehyde. We know that several chemicals used in nail salons are linked to reproductive harm—i.e. miscarriages and birth defects. 

Like the Kettleman City story, it's likely that there's not one culprit for causing cancer, but a hodge-podge of environmental toxins, experiences and circumstances (such as poverty) that contributed to the birth defects, or in the case of nail care workers, cancer.

And...did you read that sentence in the second paragraph of the story? Of 325,228 women licensed to do nail work in CA, 9,000 got cancer. That's a lot of people!

To quote Lenh Tsan of Asian Law Caucus (from "Mani-Pedi's Go Green"):

'"It would be great to have a model where the burden is on the manufacturers to prove the products on the market are safe, instead of waiting for people to get sick 20 or 30 years later,' says Lenh Tsan, the workplace health and safety project manager at Asian Law Caucus, a civil rights advocacy group in San Francisco."

Or, similarly, what Cora Roelofs said in the New America Media article:

'"Let’s not wait until we have that definitive science,' Roelofs said. 'Ultimately, it will be fairly elusive,' she added. 'These chemicals are demonstrated in rats and mice to be toxic. They shouldn’t be in cosmetics.'" 

Thu Quach's study is a huge step, and I hope that she and others will continue to study this population. There aren't very many studies done on nail salon workers. In the meantime, it's better to play it safe, for the sake of the workers, their families, and for customers, too.


Momo Chang

Senior Contributing Editor

Momo Chang is the Content Manager at the Center for Asian American Media, and freelances for magazines, online publications, and weeklies. Her writings focus on Asian American communities, communities of color, and youth culture. She is a former staff writer at the Oakland Tribune. Her stories range from uncovering working conditions in nail salons, to stories about “invisible minorities” like Tongan youth and Iu Mien farmers. She has freelances The New York Times, WIRED, and East Bay Express, among other publications.



...get your toes done? Many victims from South Asia are trafficked and forced to work as indentured servants at nail salons in exchange for passage into the U.S. READ HERE:
Im really glad someone posted on this topic. I think its something that really needs to be investigated more.