From colored acrylics and hand-painted pictures to airbrushed designs and rhinestone accents, nail salons offer an arsenal of products to create the manicure of a woman's dreams.

From colored acrylics and hand-painted pictures to airbrushed designs and rhinestone accents, nail salons offer an arsenal of products to create the manicure of a woman's dreams.

But these same products are loaded with toxic chemicals that have caught the attention of the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Division and other agencies.

The agencies are worried that Oregon's 14,500 nail technicians could be putting themselves at higher risk of breast cancer or birth defects by inhaling or absorbing these chemicals through the skin.

"The risk is not so much for the person getting the nails done," said Melanie Mesaros, spokeswoman for Oregon OSHA. "It's for the women working there all day."

In the U.S., 95 percent of all nail technicians are women, and of those 35 percent are Vietnamese, many of whom work more than eight hours a day — increasing their exposure to chemicals such as formaldehyde, toluene, dibutyl phthalate and methyl ethyl ketone.

These nail care products are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and many of them have not been sufficiently studied to determine long-term health impacts.

In Jackson County, there are 281 nail salons, according to the Oregon Health Licensing Agency.

OSHA and other groups banded together last year to form the Oregon Collaborative for Healthy Nail Salons to better educate salons about the potential risks of these chemicals and to provide information about minimizing risks. Other states have formed similar collaboratives.

A brochure has been printed in both English and Vietnamese and has been distributed to many salons this year. One of its suggestions is to use a table with a built-in fan that vents to the outside. Such tables are often required in new salons subject to current building codes.

Born in Vietnam, Nancy Gregory, who works at Beauty Nails II at the Rogue Valley Mall, recalled working in a salon that didn't have adequate ventilation. But Beauty Nails takes many of the precautions listed in the brochure, which she saw for the first time Tuesday.

"We have a big circulating fan," said the 45-year-old Medford resident. "It's really clean."

Gregory, who works with other family members, said she wears gloves when necessary and washes her hands frequently.

She said Vietnamese people are attracted to the nail care industry because it doesn't require extensive education like some other fields.

"That's an easy job for us," she said.

Patricia Huback, air toxics coordinator for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, said she wasn't sure why Vietnamese have taken to the nail care industry, but little English is required for the job and testing for the certification is offered in Vietnamese.

"It's fairly inexpensive to get into," she said.

Huback said communicating the health risks to Vietnamese technicians has been a challenge.

She said some studies have suggested a link between chemicals used in nail salons and breast cancer in Vietnamese women.

In addition to the brochure, the Oregon Collaborative is also working on a management checklist that will be released soon, she said.

The checklist advises salons to alert workers that they should avoid eating where they are mixing chemicals, properly store chemicals and use smaller containers of acetone at the table to minimize fumes.

Chemicals used in nail salons are also used in beauty salons, but Huback said officials decided to keep the focus on the smaller shops.

Mesaros said many of the suggestions in the brochure are just recommendations, though OSHA does have limits on chemical exposure and requires employers to have a full list of chemicals and what precautions are needed to handle them.

In March 2007, OSHA received an anonymous complaint about inadequate ventilation at Phagans Medford Beauty School. The investigation led to a citation against the school for failing to have a list of chemicals available for their workers. A Phagans supervisor could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday.

Mesaros said that if a nail salon is inspected by OSHA, the chemical data sheets that are required would be used to determine whether an employee needed to be wearing gloves when handling a specific chemical.

Mesaros said OSHA investigators would also inspect employees' hands to see if they had been overexposed to chemicals.

Some of the precautionary measures might prove difficult for some nail technicians to follow, such as wearing safety goggles or using a dust mask to protect the lungs against acrylic dust.

Mesaros said it's difficult to convince nail technicians that wearing a mask is a good idea.

"It could make the customer feel unsafe," she said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476 or