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Nonprofit Receives EPA Grant to Make Nail Salons 'Healthy'

by Agnes Constante /

A San Francisco Bay Area nonprofit has received a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to make nail salons healthier.

Asian Health Services (AHS), headquartered in Oakland, received a $120,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) last week to pilot a microloan program aimed at helping nail salons in the Bay Area become “healthy.”

“We are very grateful for EPA’s award and partnership in taking our efforts to the next level,” Julia Liou, director of the program planning and development department at Asian Health Services and co-founder of the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative, said in a statement. “We now have a unique opportunity to provide capital and resources to nail salons to improve the health of their workers.”

Through the program, nail salons in Alameda, San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara Counties will be able to obtain zero-percent interest loans to purchase equipment as a means of becoming a recognized “Healthy Nail Salon.” To achieve healthy status, nail salons must meet nine requirements, including using safer nail polishes and installing a mechanical ventilation unit within a year of joining the program.

The prolonged use of nail polish and other similar in poorly ventilated spaces is a suspected health hazard for nail salon workers, according to the collaborative. Nail polishes typically contain a “toxic trio” of chemicals – toluene, dibutyle phthalate, formaldehyde – that, combined, have been linked to respiratory problems, memory loss, and different types of cancer, according to the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Across the United States, the majority of salon workers – 97 percent – are women, according to industry estimates cited by the EPA, more than half of who are people of color. In California, which has the largest estimated amount of nail salons of any state in the nation, up to 80 percent of nail salon workers are of Vietnamese descent.

"We received many strong proposals. The application from Asian Health Services reflected tangible contributions from diverse partners to address a compelling environmental justice challenge."

In 2004, after conducting outreach efforts in the Vietnamese community, AHS found that many who were working in nail salons complained of health issues.

“When we went uncovering and digging more, we were realizing that this is actually an epidemic that was happening that was going unnoticed,” Liou told NBC News. “And then what we realized was it was linked to the products they were using every day because of the toxic chemicals in them.”

In response to that, the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative, which promotes healthier and safer practices in nail salons, was created the following year.

In a 2012 survey conducted by the collaborative in three California counties, more than half of 1,070 respondents said they were not aware of toxic chemicals in nail salon products, while 83 percent said they had never heard of the “toxic trio” or “3-Free” products. However, more than 90 percent said they would be more likely to return to a healthy salon, as well as request for safer products after being informed of toxic chemicals typically found in nail salon products.

Lan-Ahn Truong, owner of Leann’s Nails in Alameda, California, and the first recognized healthy nail salon in Alameda County, said in a statement she believes that nail salon owners would benefit from the microloans. She added that she has noticed improvements not only in her own health and the health of her employees, but has also seen an increase in business.

AHS will be working with the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative, two local non-profit microlenders (Working Solutions and Opportunity Fund), the Federal Reserve Bank, and San Mateo, San Francisco and Alameda Counties for the program.

The microloan project builds on a 2013 AHS project for which it received a $30,000 grant from the EPA. The project involved outreach to Vietnamese nail salon community members in the Bay Area.

Funding for this year’s project came from the EPA’s Environmental Justice Collaborative Problem-Solving grant program, one that is highly competitive, Deldi Reyes, Environmental Justice coordinator for EPA's Pacific Southwest Region, told NBC News in an email.

"We received many strong proposals,” Reyes said. “The application from Asian Health Services reflected tangible contributions from diverse partners to address a compelling environmental justice challenge."

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