Keep Our Familes SafeHealth Problems and Pedicures

For many, pedicures are a vital and soothing part of a self-pampering routine. But for one 11-year-old California girl, a simple trip to the nail salon turned into a saga of infection, pain, and scarring.

After leaving the salon she developed painful sores on her legs, 85 on one leg, and nearly 100 on the other by her mother’s count, the result of a bacterial infection. In a lawsuit filed against Silver Nails II, her family alleges the salon let dangerous bacteria accumulate in the shop’s whirlpool foot baths.

After four months of treatment by strong antibiotics, the girl is facing the prospect of permanent disfigurement. “The scarring is beginning to show,” says the girl’s mother. “She’s probably going to need plastic surgery.”

While most manicure and pedicure salons follow strict health and safety guidelines, health experts say those shops that don’t can put customers at risk for skin infections and other harmful diseases, including Hepatitis B and C, fungal infections such as athlete's foot and nail fungus, and bacterial infections such as psuedomonas, staphylococcus, and streptococcus.

The 11-year-old girl is one of 96 people so far who have reported symptoms of this pedicure-related infection, according to officials in the California county where she lives. In addition to Silver Nails II, thirteen other area salons are cited in the complaints. Four years ago, a salon in another part of the California was linked to 110 similar infections.

On the other side of the country, a recent TV consumer investigation in Philadelphia found salons that didn’t clean their equipment, and one woman who had to have foot surgery because of the resulting infection.

Silver Nails II had a history of health violations, having been cited for inadequate disinfection, and was fined $700 for failing to properly disinfect the foot spas in-between customers a few months before the girl’s fateful pedicure. The damage suffered by the young girl is more than physical. “I feel out of place and not normal,” she wrote in a letter that was read to a neighborhood support group for others with this skin infection. “I had to miss all the pool parties, and I can’t wear a skirt to school.”

According to health officials, there are some steps you can take to reduce your risk of contracting a skin infection:

• Check to make sure the establishment has a current and displayed license and your manicurist or cosmetologist has a license posted at her work station.

• Ask salon staffers how they disinfect equipment. If they don't give a good answer, hesitate or won't answer you, consider taking your business elsewhere.

• Don't shave your legs right before a pedicure. A medical study has found that infections are more likely in patrons who have recently shaved their legs.

• If the foot spa's basin looks dirty, consider having a pedicure without the use of a whirlpool spa.

• If you have any doubts about the cleanliness standards at a salon, leave.

Consumers can only do so much on their own. Despite strong sanitation regulations, a risk persists because there are so few field inspectors tasked with enforcing these standards. For instance, there are just 17 field inspectors for the 37,000 licensed nail care establishments in the state of California. While they managed an astonishing 8,200 inspections during the last fiscal year, most were in response to consumer complaints and county public health requests.

As the popularity of cosmetic treatments grows, state health authorities have an obligation to be more vigilant and proactive in protecting the public. And state lawmakers need to give health inspectors the tools and funding they need to their jobs.

Unfortunately, such reforms will come too late for the young girl and for other victims of permanent scarring and disfigurement. One such victim, 23-year-old Lisa Conley, speaks for too many when she says, “If they could give me something, I’d want my legs back. X amount of dollars is not going to compensate for what’s been done to me.”