Photo credit: Robert Gumpert for the Asian Law Caucus.

San Francisco could become the first city in the country to adopt green standards for its nail salons. It’s a move advocates hope will kick-start a movement toward greener and healthier products that has been stuck for years, despite a pioneering state law aimed at making cosmetics safer.

A new ordinance, introduced by Board of Supervisors President David Chiu, would allow the city’s 200 nail salons to qualify for a “green seal” if shop owners agree to stock products free of hazardous chemicals.

“This program will help to target the ‘toxic trio’ and recognize those who are using good products to make healthy salons,” said Chiu during a press conference July 27 to announce the measure.

For the city’s 1,800 manicurists, the key tool of their trade, nail polish, contains a so-called “toxic trio” – toluene, formaldehyde, and dibutyl phthalate — chemicals linked to cancer, birth defects, asthma and other chronic diseases. Nail salon employees are particularly vulnerable, because they work long hours in spaces that are often poorly ventilated.

“So many [in the nail business] are immigrant women – and particularly Asian women — and they are exposed to products every day,’ said Catherine Rauschuber, a legislative aide to Chiu. She said the ordinance is intended to educate workers and consumers about toxic chemicals in nail salon products and to encourage them to make safer choices. The Board of Supervisors is expected to vote on the ordinance this fall.

The ordinance is pioneering, but it’s not the first time that California has moved to regulate cosmetics. The Safe Cosmetics Act of 2005 was the first state law in the country to address the problem of toxic chemicals in personal care products. So, why does San Francisco need its own legislation to ensure that workers and consumers are protected from toxic chemicals in nail polish? Shouldn’t the Safe Cosmetics Act have remedied the problem?

The answer is: perhaps — but a reporting system that is central to the law has taken years to get off the ground and still faces challenges.

Under the act, certain cosmetic manufacturers selling products in California are required to report ingredients known or suspected to cause cancer or birth defects to the Department of Public Health. The department is then supposed to alert other state agencies and the public if a product is deemed unsafe. But the state law falls short of requiring companies to phase out the use of toxic chemicals if safer alternatives exist.

Because the Safe Cosmetics Act was unprecedented, health officials had to create a reporting system from scratch. The system was up and running by June 2009, but initially few manufacturers submitted their data. In April, the state health department and the Attorney General’s office jointly sent out an enforcement letter to 7,000 manufacturers.

To date, roughly 300 manufacturers have submitted data, according to Dr. Michael DiBartolomeis, chief of the department’s Occupational Lead Poisoning Prevention Program and California Safe Cosmetics Program. He said compliance with the state law has increased by 37 percent, but is still far short of what it should be.

Meanwhile, manufacturers have reported 26,000 toxic ingredients used in consumer products. But it’s unclear how many of those products have been reformulated to make them safer.

In the case of nail polish, safer alternatives are already available. Several nail polish makers have introduced product lines free of the “toxic trio,” due in part to consumer pressure and a growing market for green products.

With demand for green products rising and the regulatory process slower than they would like, nail salon advocates have shifted to consumer-driven approaches to get shop owners to create healthier environments in their businesses. San Francisco’s ordinance is a step in that direction.

Sushma Bhatia, a toxic reduction coordinator with the San Francisco Department of the Environment, the agency that would be responsible for implementing the measure, says education is an important first step to getting these nontoxic alternatives into the hands of salon workers.

“The choices are out there; what becomes complicated is messaging,” she said. “How do you ask for the [toxic-free] line? How can you tell what the ingredients are if you’re not a scientist?”

To reach nail salon workers, Bhatia said the city has teamed up with a local advocacy group, the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative, to determine guidelines for businesses to qualify for the green seal.

“We would do outreach to promote the program, and once a nail salon applies to the program, [workers] will get a training on public safety,” said Lenh Tsan, a community outreach worker for the Asian Law Caucus, a member of the collaborative.

The group has sent bilingual health workers out to nail salons, and held community forums in San Francisco, San Jose, and Oakland, to educate workers and raised the profile of the issue among state agencies overseeing nail shops.

Another hurdle is the lack of information about ingredients in products, which makes it hard to evaluate whether they are green. One loophole in the state law allows companies to avoid disclosing ingredients by lumping them under a general category such as “fragrance.”

“Fragrances are a complex mixture of ingredients, so we don’t really know what is in there,” Bhatia said.

Stacy Malkan, co-founder of the Berkeley-based Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, said that ultimately, what is needed are policies at the federal level to close those loopholes in state and federal cosmetic regulations, address the gaps in knowledge about chemical ingredients in personal care products, and give the government teeth to ban dangerous chemicals.

There is momentum at the federal level to do just that. Two Democratic lawmakers unveiled a bill on July 28 that increases the powers of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to protect consumers from harmful products.

Meanwhile, Malkan calls San Francisco’s proposed ordinance a useful tool that would put the power of choice in the hands of consumers and workers. She said education is key, because the information out there needs to be explained to consumers.

Fanning out and having conversations with nail salon workers and owners in the city is hugely important, she added, because it opens the door to other conversations about workers’ needs, including improved ventilation, ergonomics, and labor-law protections.

“Getting to know people and opening up the conversation and showing people that there are alternatives is a big important part of the solution,” she said.

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