Letter Grades Idea for NYC Salons Floated After Borough President's Horrifying Experience

What are you going to take home from YOUR pedicure?
What are you going to take home from YOUR pedicure?
Photo credit: Smoobs via Compfight cc

Hepatitis.

Staphylococcus.

MRSA.

You probably don't want to think about these diseases when you go to the nail salon for a pedicure. But if your salon technicians aren't properly sanitizing their equipment, you could be at risk for these any time you stick your foot in the whirlpool.

That's why Councilmember Rafael Espinal and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. have just introduced a resolution to the City Council, asking New York State for the right to regulate salons, barbershops, and spas.

"The procedures used in many salons can almost be medical in nature, yet oversight of these businesses is currently very minimal," Diaz said in a press release. "We have to change that."

"We want consumers to feel good while they're being pampered," says Espinal. "Not worry that they are at risk of being exposed to some type of infection."

Currently, the New York Department of State has 27 inspectors responsible for overseeing all of the salons in New York, according to a 2014 report by Public Advocate Letitia James. "Since 2009, New York State legislators have proposed multiple bills to improve salon safety, but none have been enshrined into law," the report states.

Between 2008 and 2012, 19 percent of salons that got inspected statewide were cited for sanitary violations, according to the report.

New York City alone is home to about 2,000 salons, but individual cities must ask Albany for permission to get oversight over state-regulated businesses. The lack of oversight leads to salon customers across the city getting infections, says John de Sio, a spokesman for Diaz: "Everyone we talk to has some kind of horror story about this."

Diaz himself was horrified this summer when his wife's aunt got a pedicure before a family reunion — only to find herself headed to the emergency room as her big toe filled with pus.

"She wanted nothing more than to feel good and look pretty and have a good time with her family," Diaz said today during a press conference about the bill in front of City Hall. "People have the right, whether...they're going to a barbershop, a nail salon, a beauty spa, to know if they're going to get more than what they're paying for. People just want a good haircut. They just want pretty and nice nails. They don't want a staph infection."

But while consumers fear fungus, people working in nail salons often face even bigger problems: a constant exposure to toxic chemicals. Lisa Pham is an environmental engineer with the Environmental Protection Agency and former manager of the agency's Nail Salon Project, which studied the environmental hazards of nail salons in the United States through the early 2000s. She says many employees work as many as twelve hours a day surrounded by acetone (in nail polish remover) and toluene (in many polishes). "Some of them skip lunch and dinner," says Pham. "When I worked on this, I was amazed how people could do that." Salons can use high-tech ventilated manicure stations, she says, but they carry a high price tag. Many go for anywhere between $250 and $1,000.

Pham says business owners are likely to approach employee and customer safety precautions with the same attitude: They take up workers' time and can often involve spending more money. "I think as long as you leave it up to the shop owner, most likely, he would like to cut the cost."

Diaz and his supporters want to stop giving salon owners that choice. The resolution is part of a legislative package that also includes a salon customer bill of rights and resolution demanding that New York State "expand its health and safety training options" for salon workers.

Lawmakers still haven't worked out the details about how a city-wide salon regulation system would look. De Sio says inspections would probably be performed through the Department of Health or Department of Consumer Affairs, using the same letter grades we've come to associate with restaurants. The legislation currently has fewer than eleven supporters in the City Council, but Diaz's rep expects the number to grow in the new year.

Send news tips to ktoth@villagevoice.com Follow @kat_toth on Twitter

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