written by Elise Miller, EdM
This past week something rather remarkable happened: First, the New York Times published two major investigative pieces on the pervasive exploitation and occupational health hazards experienced by workers in the nail salon industry. And then the really astonishing part—Governor Cuomo of New York issued emergency measures two days later to combat the horrendous inequities and toxic chemical exposures that manicurists face. Rarely do we see such swift, decisive government action in response to reports highlighting environmental and social injustices—and rarely do we see the convergence of evidence-based science, skilled health advocacy, first-rate journalism, and responsive government result in such an immediate, positive outcome. Of course it will take much longer yet for large scale changes that fully protect these workers to take place, but this is an impressive first step.
That said, it’s also important to note that this didn’t all happen in a few days, but in fact, has been years in the making. Research on the health impacts of phthalates, toluene, and formaldehyde—three of the chemicals found in products nail salon workers use regularly and noted in the New York Times article “Perfect Nails, Poisoned Workers“—started in some cases decades ago. Recently, the number of scientific studies indicating these chemicals may be associated with various forms of cancer, reproductive health problems, and neurological impacts has increased significantly, providing stronger and stronger grounds for reducing exposures.
But we all know that the best research can’t shift political will without scientists, health professionals, and health advocates working together to consistently and effectively translate and highlight these concerns. Quite a number of CHE’s partners have been involved in one way or another in this process—from conducting scientific studies to working on major initiatives, such as the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.
Even that kind of collaborative effort, however, may not be enough to move the needle unless smart, skilled journalists are supported to do this kind of investigation by respected media institutions, such as the New York Times. And finally, even top-notch media reports don’t lead to immediate and appropriate responses unless there are elected officials willing to take bold action to improve conditions for vulnerable populations.
In this case, all of these factors coalesced to lay bare the beast lurking beneath the beauty business and confront it head on. This is collaboration at its best. This is what we at CHE want to encourage more of by bringing attention to the emerging science so that all of us working our respective, yet related sectors can most effectively press decision makers to put public health first.