RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
If you want a mani-pedi - that's a manicure and pedicure to the uninitiated - you don't have to walk very far here in California. There are about 48,000 nail salons throughout the state. A new study by the state government now says some products used in those salons contain toxic substances, even though the products are billed as nontoxic. That sounds scary for salon owners and workers and clients, but representatives of the nail care industry say the study is nonsense. NPR's Ted Robbins reports.
TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: The California Department of Toxic Substance Control tested nail polish topcoats, basecoats, thinners and lacquers which claimed to be free of at least one of these chemicals: toluene, dibutyl phthalate and formaldehyde, the so-called toxic trio of chemicals suspected of being linked to cancer and birth defects. None of the nail polishes had formaldehyde, but a few had dibutyl pthalate and almost all had toluene. Cam Vong heard about the study.
CAM VONG: Yeah, make me worry.
ROBBINS: Vong, who like 80 percent of California's nail technicians is Vietnamese, has been in the business for 27 years. She runs Artistic Nails in Culver City, where she and three others do nails all day long. As a regular customer has her nails filed, Vong says feels fine, but she's at the mercy of the companies which make the products.
VONG: It's the manufacturer, you know? It's the manufacturer. Whatever they say we buy, we don't know.
ROBBINS: Some private health safety advocates are using the study to claim that nail polish is unsafe. Doug Schoon says that's not the message people should be taking from it.
DOUG SCHOON: To turn this into a - and act as if it's a national problem with nail polish, I think that was a big mistake and should not have been done.
ROBBINS: Schoon is a chemist and co-chair of the Nail Manufacturers Council. He's critical of the state for not working with the nail care industry. Schoon says the study looked at small manufacturers, and even then the levels of toluene and dibutyl phthalate were below safety standards set by the state of California itself, the U.S., and the European Union.
SCHOON: These nail polishes are legal to sell in the United States, Canada and Europe. They're not doing anything illegal and they're being singled out, I think unjustly, except in the cases where the products were improperly labeled. But it's not a safety issue, it's a labeling issue.
ROBBINS: Jeff Wong agrees. He's a scientist with the California Department of Substance Control, which issued the report.
JEFF WONG: We did not intend for this initial analysis to set up a claim or basis that there is harm to either the workers or the customer.
ROBBINS: In fact, Wong says there's no evidence in the study that long term exposure to the chemicals is harmful. But he does say the mislabeling robs people of choice.
WONG: If you are a consumer - that is, whether you're a service provider or a customer - and you have made the choice that I do not want to be exposed to toluene in my nail products, and in fact that's what the label says, but in fact that the toluene is there, that again disallows the customer or service provider from taking advantage of that informed choice.
ROBBINS: Correcting the mislabeling, says Wong, is what should happen next. Any more testing, he says, should be done in cooperation with the nail care industry.
Ted Robbins, NPR News, Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.