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Chemical dangerous, nail salon owner warns

A set of long, glamourous nails costs $55 at Joseph Caetano's Bostonian salon. His three nail technicians do not wear masks and they work in a side room where a mild aroma similar to rubbing alcohol hangs in the air.

Caetano says those three reasons alone should assure you that your nails won't be painful _ even hazardous _ to live with.

The 69-year-old Tampa Palms resident has his eye on some discount nail salons that may charge half his price. If technicians cover up with masks and an pungent bittersweet smell overpowers the customer, Caetano is suspicious of a cheap but dangerous chemical called methyl methacrylate, MMA for short.

Thirty-nine states ban MMA. Caetano is working with state Sen. Victor Crist to draft legislation that would make Florida the 40th.

"It's wicked stuff," said Caetano, who sits on the state's Board of Cosmetology.

The Food and Drug Administration first warned about the dangers of MMA in 1974 and it has done so consistently ever since. The chemical is known to damage flesh under the nail and cause liver lesions and birth defects.

The Nail Manufacturers Council has warned against using it.

But salons like the light-purple chemical for two main reasons. First, at around $50 a gallon it sells for a quarter the price of safer acrylic adhesives. Second, it works. Sometimes it works too well. Surgeons use MMA in the operating room to seal bone to a metal prosthesis in joint replacement surgery.

Because the government and health officials have discouraged MMA for decades, salons are loathe to admit to using it. But Caetano, a 31-year veteran of the salon business, says the chemical is out there and is most prevalent in South Florida.

The legislation he hopes Crist will submit later this session would impose a $1,000 fine or suspend the driver's license of a salon owner caught using it.

To test some samples Caetano collected from various stores and salons, he enlisted the help of Matthew Booth, an analytical chemist at the University of Florida who normally studies mosquito attractants.

Booth said that if you're suspicious of your salon, trust your nose.

"You'd get knocked out by the smell," Booth said of MMA.

_ John Balz can be reached at (813) 269-5313 or at