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Are Fish Pedicures a Health Hazard? Arizona Woman Defends Business

Michael Temchine/For The Washington Post via Getty Images(PHOENIX) -- Fish pedicures -- in which you sit in a salon with your feet in water while small fish nibble away dead, callused skin -- may be a growing trend overseas, but not in the United States.  Now, an Arizona woman who started offering fish pedicures is going to court to defend her business.

Cindy Vong opened a fish spa in the Phoenix suburbs as part of her nail salon in 2008 and spent $50,000, seeing it as an opportunity to expand her business.  Six months later, the Arizona Board of Cosmetology forced her to stop, arguing that the fish, used for skin exfoliation, could not be sanitized between uses.  Vong sued for the right to reopen the spa.

“She hasn’t violated any law, she hasn’t done anything wrong, she’s being an enterprising woman,” argued Darcy Olsen, the president of the Goldwater Institute, which says it defends people’s liberties from government intrusion and decided to take on Vong’s case.  “A threat to her business is a threat to every American business, and that’s why we’re fighting the case.”

Opening statements in the trial began Monday in Maricopa County Superior Court.  According to Olsen, the cosmetology board argued that the fish were a tool, and “every tool that comes in contact with a client in Arizona needs to be disinfected or thrown away.”

Olsen said these are unreasonable guidelines.  He conceded that “you can’t disinfect a fish with Clorox bleach,” but said Vong’s constitutional rights were violated and the board “could have come up with an alternative set of regulations.”

“Basically, it’s a 14th amendment issue,” said Olsen.  “In America you have the right to pursue an honest living as long as you’re not endangering the public.  She has the right to operate this business and the government does not have any right to shut her down.”

Fish spas overseas most often use Garra rufa fish, native to the Middle East, to nibble away dead skin on people’s feet.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 10 states have banned fish pedicures, citing the risk of infection.

Last year, ABC News reported the fish “may carry bacteria responsible for a variety of dangerous skin and soft tissue infections, British scientists reported.”  

The CDC says on its website that it is ” not aware of any published reports on illnesses resulting from fish pedicures.  Nail salon foot baths, however, have caused outbreaks of nontuberculous mycobacterial infections that left infected pedicure customers with boils and scars.”

Vong has argued the practice does not pose any health risks and said she did not receive complaints from customers.  Olsen said Vong had to lay off three employees and claims she lost a popular part of her practice.

She is not looking for any monetary damages, said Olsen.  “She just wants to be able to operate her business,” Olsen added.

Lawyers for and members of the Arizona Board of Cosmetology could not be reached for comment.

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