Transcript: Podship Earth Episode 51: NAILED IT

JARED BLUMENFELD: Welcome to Podship Earth. This is your host Jared Blumenfeld. You’re so Cupid, Cherry on Top, Russian Roulette, Wrapped in Rubies, Madam President, and an affair in red square. All these are different shades of red nail polish. The reason for my new-found fascination with nail polish is that I'm going to get my toes painted in honor of my favorite team, Liverpool, and I want to make sure that no one gets injured in the process. No, not from the sight of my toes, but rather from the host of toxins that are in nail care products. I started this journey by meeting up with Julia Liou who back in 2005, cofounded the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative, whose mission is to ensure the health, safety, and rights of nail salon workers. Julia is also the chief deputy of the Oakland based Asian Health Services, and Julia has her masters in Public Health from UCLA. I started by asking Juliet how she first heard about the health issues affecting nail salon workers.

JULIA LIOU: One of our outreach workers to the Vietnamese community came back and said to me, wow, I've been noticing that a lot of people have been telling me that they've had a lot of health issues. So, I asked her, well, how many of these workers are telling you that they have health issues? And she said, everybody. And so, we looked into it, and everyone was complaining of very similar issues, whether it was these rashes, they had all these irritations, nose and throat, and then people would tell stories about miscarriages, about breast cancer. So, it just occurred to me that this was something going on that seemed that it needs to be investigated. We started to put two and two together and look at the research studies on these chemicals and what these workers were experiencing. We started to realize that there was this epidemic of health issues happening in the Nelson worker industry.

JARED BLUMENFELD: And what year was this, Julia? 

JULIA LIOU: This was back in 2004, so we realized that we needed to do something about this because nail salon workers, the majority of them don't speak English. And many of them were very scared to even share about what they're experiencing with their health. We have to develop their leadership we need to raise their voices because they need to be heard. These stories were being untold. And yet the industry was basically building the narrative for, you know, their products and that they were safe. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, tell us a little bit about nail salons in California. 

JULIA LIOU: So, in California there's about 8,000 nail salons and about 129,000 workers. And majority are of Asian descent, primarily Vietnamese and women of reproductive age. So, if you think about it, and even across the country there's about 350,000, but we recognize there's a lot of salons that probably don't get reported. A lot of these nail salons, they are smaller so maybe they'll have four to five workers. When people came here from Vietnam, they started this industry. They actually made the industry into what it is today. There was one family and what they did is they did a 15 to 20 minute come in, get your mani-pedi and they could charge like 20 bucks. And so, it just caught on. You didn't have to speak much English you'd get the business license. And as more people came through, the state began having the test in Vietnamese, and they would begin to sponsor their families over. And so, it became really a family business. So, just became an explosion, where you can see there's nail salons, you know, on every corner, they're next door to each other. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: It's taken a long time for people to recognize that in our country, we have all these health issues in nail salons that no one was talking about. 

 

JULIA LIOU: Yeah. And that's because our federal system is broken. You know, there's a 75-year-old cosmetic law that has never changed and the industry is very powerful. You know, in the nail care industry, it's about $7 million within a $50 billion beauty industry. And right now, there's no independent entity that assesses your personal care products and that includes the nail care products for safety. So, there is this gap in our federal legislation.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: What is in nail care products that are particularly toxic? 

 

JULIA LIOU: There are things called the toxic trio. So, we know that there's been toluene, which we know is a reproductive toxicant that can also create memory loss. It's also a neurotoxicant. There's formaldehyde, which is a known carcinogen. Dibutyl phthalate which is also a reproductive toxicant. Now manufacturers have shifted to remove some of these chemicals from polishes, but they're still prevalent in some of the other nail care products. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: At the beginning, what was the reaction of the nail salons that you talked to, Julia? 

 

JULIA LIOU: When we first started the healthy nail salon program, we actually want it to ban. We said, you know what? Let's ban these chemicals. Let's get them out. And you know, it was really interesting because a lot of them said, don't ban it. And we said, why? And they said, you're going to put us out of business because you know what? Consumers love these products. They love how their nail polish can stay on for a month. They don't have to come back. Long lasting, has these particular colors. And so, at the time we said, okay, well what do you think is the solution? And they said, well, we think if there's alternatives, we want to know if those alternatives actually work well, and we want to know are they going to be more expensive or not? So, we had to do a lot of research. We had to go to them, and you know, show them that actually, hey, the ones without the toxic chemicals work just as fine. Maybe they dry, maybe like two seconds longer. You know, they can still have the same colors. So, it wasn't until they became really comfortable and then we said, well, let's create an incentive program for that. And you know, we went and looked at, can you become a green salon? We got to keep this simple. We got to start somewhere. Let's do the healthy nail salon program. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: What is a healthy nail salon program? 

 

JULIA LIOU: It's 10 criteria. People get it, and once we started to have someone who understood it, once we got someone on the curve and could say, hey, I'm fine and look my customers actually like it, I will have even more customers. We started getting more and more owners interested because they could see the benefits not only for their workers, but even for their business.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Talking of business, I need to get my nails painted. So, I traveled to Montclair, California to meet one of the first green nail salons in the country. I meet with Uyen Nguyen at a beautifully designed, odor free salon. Uyen, tell us where we are right now.

 

UYEN NGUYEN: Isabella Nail Bar in Oakland, California. It is my nail salon. I started it about 11 or 12 years ago and it is named after my daughter Isabelle.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: How did you decide you wanted to get into the nail business?

 

UYEN NGUYEN: When I first came to this country, my sponsor took me to a nail salon and then I asked her and I said, what happened? Why does it smell so strong in there? And she said this is the way America is honey. So then fast forward, I finished my college degree and worked as a process engineer for semiconductors. It was still intriguing to me because lot of my relatives worked in the nail industry and have had children that miscarriage at nearly full term, like eight and a half months. And when they had gone to the doctor, the doctor said, what have you done? And she's like, I work in the nail salon and I do this acrylic all day long. Finally, the doctor ordered her to get out of the business. And another incident is my other sister-in-law. She’s been doing this since 1975 which is past 30 years. And she fell constantly on her job in Pleasanton. And finally, she went to have it a test. So, the doctor found out she has a blood disease, and she needs to stop working in the industry.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: What impact did that have on you?

 

UYEN NGUYEN: I had small children, and then I looked into the resources and started researching into what happened in the acrylic that caused all these problems. So, that's the way I started researching and then I found out there’s got to be a better way to do business than this, so that's how Isabella was born.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, you're in the semiconductor industry, you'd gone to college, you've done all these things, and then I mean because you found out about the toxic chemicals that were in the nail salons, you said, I'm going to do it differently.

 

UYEN NGUYEN: I started the nail salon, and said how do I find product that have no toxins and we all know that the formaldehyde and toluene are just causing a huge problem with women, and there's no regulation,

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, we care more about the chips that we put in our phones and computers than we do about people that apply nail polish and have nail polish on them.

 

UYEN NGUYEN: Yes, yes, yes. That’s the truth because if you look furthermore in the beauty industry because for example in semiconductors, if we don't follow the regulation, somebody's going to sue them, and they got the money. Well in the beauty industry, they can hide. Whereas you go and check the vendor and say, can you list the ingredients in this? There's nobody listing the ingredients, so the regulation was loose. That's what I’ve seen. And the majority of the women that do and walk into the nail salon are the women from Southeast Asia. Culturally, we don't speak up. We just say, okay. Because of this, if we speak up, we worry we will lose our jobs, or we no longer have a job to provide for our family.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: When you started your green nail salon, you were one of the very first.

 

UYEN NGUYEN: So, I said first I have to research the materials and I have to make a salon that is different than the rest. And so, I started researching. I started reading on it. So, I said that there are two benefits, one benefit for the workers who are just people from my country who can speak up for themselves and get better work conditions. The second is for the client who sitting there and inhaling all this, which also causes health that they don't know of. So, that was the motivation, you could call it.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Talking about motivation, tell us about your journey that led you to being in Oakland today.

 

UYEN NGUYEN: My Dad is a south Vietnam officer. Because of my status, I couldn't enter college. So, I said forget about it, I'm not going to stay here with communism and get married and have children. The history is Vietnam fell after ‘75. So, for the people who worked for the south and Vietnam, which is an American ally, they imprisoned them. All of them for their intellect, they got imprisoned. The called the prison re-education. So, my father, my uncle was part of it. And so, to punish the children of the imprisoned or reeducation, they limited what we can do. In some instances, they isolated us. So, I graduated high school very young, actually. I was the youngest. I was only 16, but they made us go through different hoops to enter college. Even if we got the maximum score that they wanted. They still would not let you go because they felt that when you finished college, you would turn around and you would be against them. So, in my case and many people in my circumstance, the only way to escape communism was to escape by boat. So, you pay some people, you go underground, hide at night and then you had to get on the ocean in this tiny boat. And then, when you pass the Vietnam territory in the ocean, there’s a very slim chance that you will get picked up by another country. Also, a lot of people lose their lives by Thai pirates. So, I was one of the lucky ones. I made it to Malaysia and then I stayed in Malaysia for a couple years, and then I ended up in America in 1990. So, that for the boat people and myself.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: That's an amazing journey. I think people sit at home and especially people who come in and get nails done, it's such a luxury, and

thinking about that struggle that you had to come through just to get to the country. It’s really courageous.

 

UYEN NGUYEN: I think as a human, one you get pushed. You just find the way to better your life and better for the people surrounding you. So, I'm sure the younger generation, like my children now, grow up in America. They don't experience that, but they can do differently. You look around, you see there are refugees from other countries, and you can see what have we done as a generation for global warming? For example, what should we learn about our trash? What should they learn about the toxins that we inhale every day? So, I'm sure there are opportunities for all of us.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: And when you watch the TV, just as a personal experience, and see the Syrian or North African refugees in those little boats trying to get to Europe. Does that, does that remind you of the experience that you had?

 

UYEN NGUYEN: Yes. Yes. It reminds me that without those, I would have died in the ocean or I wouldn’t have had the opportunity that I have today to be in such a paradise in the country like America. And, yes, I always want to help. So, when I came to the America, the first thing in my mind was I promised my parent I’d finish college. You are the refugee, but what do you do for your people? And then the beautiful thing about America is you can do all that. You can have your dream and also you can do something for your people too. And also, the people of your new home, which is America. So that's where the fire within me started.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: People love going to nail salons. It makes them feel good about themselves.

 

UYEN NGUYEN: In nail salons, it doesn't matter what continent you are on, we always search for the experience. Not only the glamour of I’ll put this color on my nails, but I think it's the experience. So, luckily in my shop, I don't only serve clients who looked for glamour, but most of them come for the experience. We also take care of a lot of professional athletes. A lot of Warriors come here. A lot of Raider players come here. So, not only for women but for men too. So, within that 50 minutes or an hour, you sit in there, what helps you to relax? Not only do you care about your own experience to relax yourself, but what do you do to help the worker who works there day in and day out?

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, you have a lot of knowledge and education around chemicals and you came from an industry that was completely different, right? So, what kind of shocked you when you started looking at what was in the nail polish and in the acrylics? Like what were you finding when you first did that research?

 

UYEN NGUYEN: The one that shocked me the most is the primer for the acrylic because we know that causes cancer, but nobody will do something about it. The second shock is vendors freely deliver products that have ingredients they don't list on it. Many clients, they don't even know that nail polish has formaldehyde or toluene. None of them know. They just come there and then inhale it and use it. So that shocked me. That's really shocked me.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: I mean, formaldehyde is the same stuff that we embalm dead people with, right? So, most people wouldn't even think that it would be in nail polish.

 

UYEN NGUYEN: I talked to many women who have done this for 25 years prior to my study and they're like, oh, if you don't do acrylic, you know what, you're going to close the doors on your business. I said, I’m going to prove you wrong. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, you don't do any acrylics? 

 

UYEN NGUYEN: Not at all. Not at all. Yes, because the primer in there I don't believe it's should be there. And that comes back to the two personal experiences that I had with my sister-in-law who lost her baby at eight-and-half-months and then my other sister-in-law that the doctor ordered her to stop working in the nail salon. I have staff who at first came and asked the reason why I don't do acrylics. I said that's the reason because of the chemicals, and also all the product I use don't have toluene or formaldehyde and then they went and worked for their sister. And then they came back to me and they said I want to have baby and in the past two years, I couldn't have the baby. And as soon as they came to me, they got pregnant.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: When you first said, I don't want chemicals, I want totally clean products with no formaldehyde or any chemicals that are toxic that you're using in your salon. Was it hard to find them?

 

UYEN NGUYEN: Yes, it was hard, but this was in 2007, and after that, it started getting very popular. I was so happy. At the time, I only use Zoysia and that's the only product that I used, but now it's 2019, and there’s been such huge progress. We have other companies stepping up.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: It is surprising to me that there's any nail salons that would use toxic chemicals. They're still few healthy nail salons and there are still toxic nail salons. How do you think we're going to change that?

 

UYEN NGUYEN: First we have to start with regulation and then secondly, is education because you have to educate both the shop owner and the clients. If they see the benefit, they will come. We have to start with the regulation. I have clients that drive to my salon for one and a half hours. So, they see the benefit, it’s

just how do we enforce it and regulate it?

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: When the reps come for products, are they still making both or do you see a switch where some companies are just saying we're not going to make it at all?

 

UYEN NGUYEN: If the vendor tells you that if my company doesn't have toluene in my product, they have to soundproof that, and you have to find them, or you know, if they lie, right? So, that’s where regulations come in. Because for example, in semi-conductors, if you sell the product to me and you say that you don’t have toluene and two months later you have toluene, you will be responsible for us. So the same. But in this instant, it's human health.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: We're back with Julia Liou at the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative. I ask her if part of the problem is that you simply need a PHD before you can understand how to read the label.

 

JULIA LIOU: I completely agree. It is hard because even for the workers and the owners, and they're not English speaking, and they are like what is this? I remember we had to create a poem to even know what to look for. You know, formaldehyde, well, what does that mean? And so, it's tough. I mean, we had to do the education just to say you need to recognize there are these chemicals that aren't healthy for you. We realized toluene is the byproduct of petroleum. It's so cheap. No wonder why chemical manufacturers put it in, but you can take it out and it's fine, but it's a really cheap ingredient. There's a lot of profits for the manufacturers by using a cheaper ingredient. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Maybe tell us what's happening around the world just as a reference point.

 

JULIA LIOU: Well, in the European Union, they've banned dibutyl phthalate and they've been successful. So, any of the manufacturers, they can't sell to Europe, but they can turn around and sell these products to the United States. So, they can do it. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, companies that make something to be sold in Europe then take out the toxic chemicals, but when they make it for the United States, they include those toxic chemicals cause it's cheaper for them?

 

JULIA LIOU: It is completely contradictory. We need to mobilize the consumers. You know, we have done some education around patronizing healthy nail salons and we actually did a survey where a lot of consumers said that if I knew that there was a healthy nail salon, I would go. I would pay maybe a few extra dollars just to know that it would be better for my health and also the workers' health. I would do it. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Has it been a challenge to help people realize that this is an environmental justice issue? Because it's a workplace issue so it is kind of different. 

 

JULIA LIOU: Yeah, it was taken a lot of education around what constitutes environmental injustice. And so, we have done quite a bit around the workers and helping them understand that this is something that, you know, they have felt that they've had to choose between their health and their livelihood simply due to the fact that there are no regulations on the safety of these products that they're handling. You know, they just want to support their family. So many workers that we've talked to, you know, they really want to help people feel beautiful. I mean, that's what kind of drives their passion and why they do this. Well, at one point we actually held a round table where we brought top nail manufacturers to the table and we thought, well, let's try and see can we establish some kind of agreement on what is safe? Someone from OPI stood up and said, I'll prove to you that my nail polish is safe. And when he did, as he proceeded to drink his nail polish. He said, I wouldn't be drinking this nail polish if it wasn't safe. But we kept reiterating, you have workers, there are canaries in the coal mine. They're being exposed to this seven to ten hours a day, six to seven days a week. To say that you are not impacted by toxic chemicals and their exposures, that was wrong. It was difficult. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: If they are going to be drinking it, that shows they are pretty far away from admitting there's a problem.

 

JULIA LIOU: Exactly.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Back with Uyen Nguyen at the Isabella Nail Bar, I'm anxiously awaiting the application of some color. Uyen, what would your message be to other nail salon owners if they are thinking of going toxic free?

 

UYEN NGUYEN: You have to think long term. You cannot think instantly because the company that had product that have no toxins in it would cost you more, but in the long term, not only for your own health but for your client’s health and you have to think long term. You cannot choose because it’s a dollar cheaper or two dollars cheaper on a bottle of polish, you can’t shortcut. You can’t put a price tag on health.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: There are so many magazines that focus on women's health and beauty and glamour and this isn't a story you hardly read about it at all.

 

UYEN NGUYEN: We want glamor. We want the look, but we want to live long and beautiful too. We not only want to look good and then died young. So, in that instance, if one, we educate them, one, we provide the message.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, Uyen, take a look at my nails. Like what do you think? What would you recommend? How are they doing? 

 

UYEN NGUYEN: Your nails are very good.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: I know, but like do I need professional help? What do you look for when you're looking at someone's hands? You can't help but look at their nails.

 

UYEN NGUYEN: In your case, it's very healthy. All I need to do is just clean up and cut shorter and just help you massage and buff. Shine if you want too.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, what color would you recommend for my nails? 

 

UYEN NGUYEN: Which one is your sport team?

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Liverpool. They are red. 

 

UYEN NGUYEN: You need to have at least red in there.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: I grew up with soccer, so I'm going to get them done red. I’ll get them done red. Thank you so much to Julia Liou of both California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative and Asian Health Services and to Uyen Nguyen, the owner of the Isabella Nail Bar for sharing with us the risk to nail salon workers and clients from the host of toxic chemicals found in nail products. The work that Julia and Isabella and many others are doing to help change the 8.6 billion-dollar nail industry is inspiring. The next time you get ready for a mani-pedi, make sure you visit a nail salon that is either as participating in a certified Healthy Nail Salon Program or a salon that looks after their employees by committing to go toxic free. And in case you're wondering, I chose You Must be Cupid, the shade of red for my Liverpool toes. In next week's episode, cousin David meets up with Podship Earth South Africa correspondent Dana Smiren in what can only be described as the rumble in Anaheim, a title fight in which David and Dana compete to see who's still standing at the end of a full day at the world's largest natural foods expo. Thank you so much for being part of the Podship Earth journey. From the entire Podship Earth crew, sound engineer, Rob Speight, executive producer David Kahn, and from me, Jared Blumenfeld, have a great week. In fact, I'm sure you're nailing it.