Ventilation Mandate Sparks Debate Among Nail Salon Workers

When Tyra Palmer started her nail business nearly two years ago, her days would often end with lightheadedness and nausea.

Despite taking protective measures like wearing a face mask and operating in a properly ventilated space, doing the most routine aspects of her job – from filing down pedicures to painting French tips – exposed her to fumes and dust that triggered her sickness. She worked from her home in Queens, and her shifts could last up to nine hours, sometimes worsening the effects of the toxic air.

“There’d be times where I couldn’t sleep because my head was hurting so much,” she said.

Palmer’s symptoms are common in the nail industry, a profession predominately made up of women of color. After lobbying from advocacy groups, New York officials in 2016 announced new ventilation standards, among other reforms, to create a safer work environment.

While new salons opening around or after that time were expected to comply with the rules, existing businesses had until October 2022. A year later, the nail service industry remains divided on whether ventilation really works — and if the changes are worth the cost.

“I think this law was well-intentioned, but there’s a lot of different barriers for making this successful,” said Brian Pavilonis, an associate professor at CUNY’s Graduate School of Public Health & Health Policy who has conducted air quality studies in New York City nail salons.

Under the law, salons must use both exhaust systems and a primary ventilation system; the former removes toxins from manicure and pedicure stations, and the latter brings in clean air from outside. Depending on the season, air brought in may need to be warmed or cooled.

Installing the systems can cost anywhere from $15,000 to $20,000, Pavilonis said. While some salons have those structures in place, he’s noticed they’re not always used due to increased heating and cooling costs when running them.

The CUNY professor’s ongoing research shows that ventilation is beneficial in reducing chemical exposure. Still, while the state’s requirements may be working, he said “nobody considered the economic effects of the nail salon workers.”

Since the pandemic, New York delayed the deadline salons had to comply with ventilation requirements twice — first in October 2021, then again in April 2022. Regulations were not officially enforced until October 2022.

Yet, during the postponement period, the state’s inspection program continued. In 2021, 724 salons were inspected, with 430 operating in violation of ventilation requirements. Inspections were performed in New York City, Long Island, Albany and Buffalo salons.

As of this year, 1,389 inspections have been conducted statewide. Nearly 260 salons inspected this year have violated ventilation requirements, according to an update presented at the state’s Appearance Enhancement Advisory Committee meeting last month.

When issued a violation, salons can avoid tickets, fines and potential court hearings if they remedy their violation within a certain time period, under the state’s “opportunity to cure” (OTC) process. The process was first implemented in 2021 and will continue until the end of this year.

Out of the salons inspected this year, roughly three dozen chose not to participate in the OTC process and were referred to a court hearing due to ventilation violations, according to an update at last month’s Appearance Enhancement Advisory Committee. The state plans to complete a total of 2,800 inspections by the end of the year.

With an estimated 5,700 nail salons operating across New York State, landlords can also pose a threat to compliance, given the need for renovations.

“If you don’t have a space that allows you to have a contractor come over and break walls, put ventilations in, then you’re not getting it,” TeAra DeBerry, a former nail salon owner, said.

DeBerry now operates her business, Lé Nailtique Noire., out of a bus that travels across the New York tri-state area. However, she’s still required to comply with the rules.

With more than 20 years of experience in the beauty industry, DeBerry believes nail providers should instead focus on eliminating harmful products.

Some of the chemicals nail technicians work with — such as acetone, acrylic and polish — have been linked to miscarriages, menstrual disorders and respiratory complications. After experiencing four lung collapses throughout her lifetime, DeBerry now prefers working with natural nails and non-toxic polishes.

“I’m not taking any risks,” she said. “I don’t want to do anything that causes harm to myself.”

Palmer has also switched to using less harmful products. Even with proper ventilation, she has opted to use polygel, a nail enhancement also known as Gel-X, which she said doesn’t smell as strong as acrylic.

But in April, Palmer decided to temporarily stop servicing clients, a move she made after becoming pregnant. With studies suggesting that nail salon workers could be likely to experience pregnancy complications, working was not a risk Palmer was willing to take.

“I felt like my life was threatened,” Palmer said. “How am I going to keep being a service provider if I’m compromising my health?”

About the author(s)

Brianna Benitez is a student at the Columbia Journalism School.