Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month:Sharon Lin

By Sharon Lin, Environmental Justice and Asian American Community

It’s a beautiful 80-degree day in Spring. I put on a pair of sandals for the first time this year and realized that I needed a pedicure. As I walked into a nail salon in my neighborhood, I was overwhelmed by the smell of chemicals. A pedicure with my friends, the typical “moms’ day out” activity, is no longer fun and care-free, since I started working with the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative last December. Now, when I think of nail salons, I think about Environmental Justice in the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community.

Here are the facts: 40% of the licensed nail salon technicians in U.S. are Asian women, and 80% of them in California are Vietnamese women. Nearly all of these — 95% — are women of child-bearing age. Their average wage is less than $18,200 per year. They are mostly non-English speakers. The nail salon industry is one of the few growing job sectors for new immigrants.

Last October, San Francisco established a “green salon” recognition program, encouraging salons to avoid using the carcinogens toluene, formaldehyde and dibutyl-phthalate, known as the “toxic trio, in their nail products. This voluntary regulation, recognized by the city’s Department of Environment, is the nation’s first local measure to protect the health of nail salon workers. Other cities are expected to follow.

My awareness of environmental justice started when I became a Superfund project manager for the Palos Verdes Shelf superfund site in 2002. This Southern California Superfund site, which includes an offshore area of sea bottom contaminated with DDT and PCBs, caused contamination in some of the local fish and created a significant health threat to AAPI communities in the Los Angeles area, where many people regularly ate those fish.

My interest in environmental justice for AAPI communities came naturally. As an immigrant from China, I had firsthand experience of being underprivileged. I knew the importance of community-based organizations. My parents and I came to the U.S. when I was 18. We received free health care at the community clinic in San Francisco’s Chinatown. My parents received free job training and English language classes at the Chinatown community center. As for me, two college degrees and four jobs later, I have the privilege of working with the same community organizations that helped my family land on our feet in this country. Each day, I feel honored to be their partner in addressing the environmental and public health needs of the new immigrant communities. This is my American dream!

About the author: Sharon Lin is an environmental engineer with EPA’s Environmental Justice Program in the Pacific Southwest Region (Region 9). Sharon is also the Asian American Pacific Islander Employment Program Manager in EPA Region 9. Sharon is a first generation Chinese American.

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