Contaminated Tattoo Ink is Behind Mysterious Infections

By Veronique Greenwood | September 7, 2012 11:44 am

One patient’s rash

In January of this year, a string of unusual patients began to trickle into dermatologist’s offices in Rochester, NY. They had red rashes on areas where they had recently had tattoos, and the usual treatments were not working.

The cases, 19 in all, were reported to the local department of public health. A team there learned that all the patients had developed the rash, which turned out to be a bacterial infection, within three weeks of getting a tattoo at a particular parlor. When they interviewed the tattoo artist, they learned that he had recently begun to use a new kind of grey ink. Such ink is often used to create shadow effects, and indeed, the patients’ rashes tended to be on the areas where the grey ink had been injected into their skin.

The new color had come from a trade show in Arizona, and this particular artist was the only person using it in the county, as well as the only one whose clients came down with the rash. Since the tattoo artist ran a tidy shop—a health department inspection raised no red flags there—the investigators focused their attention on the ink. They called in the FDA, which requested samples from the ink manufacturer and had the CDC check to see whether the bacterium behind the infections was there. It was, in one of the three unopened bottles they tested. It must have crept in at some stage in the manufacturing process. No one really knows, though, how the bacterium got there.

Though the patients were eventually treated with a barrage of antibiotics and the ink was recalled, this outbreak, which was recently described in the New England Journal of Medicine, highlights a somewhat unnerving reality: Tattoo ink is considered a cosmetic, and the FDA has very little power to regulate the cosmetics industry. It can, once an outbreak is suspected, request samples and ask the Department of Justice to seize products. But it cannot make manufacturers submit data proving that their products are safe before they are put on the market.

As more and more people get tattoos—the rate has grown from 14% to 21% of the US adult population in just the last 4 years—we may see more outbreaks that have more to do with safety failures on the manufacturer’s end than on the hygiene of the tattoo parlor.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
  • Jbelkin

    People who have body issues are not our responsibility. It is cosmetic so yes, it’s the users responsibility – if they decide to mar their body, what do we care?

  • lee

    @Jbelkin. It’s really not a good idea to project your issues on other people. Regardless, it’s not unreasonable for people purchasing any product to know that it’s safe for use, cosmetic or otherwise.

  • Renee

    Good point, Jbelkin. You know, I think what people choose to wear is their own responsibility, too. Totally cosmetic! So why should we get upset if their pyjamas are flammable?

  • Alex

    That picture looks really terrible.
    Also, there seems to be some kind of skin infection.

  • Shank Riley

    Tattoos are a great form of self expression but customers should make sure the salon they are working with secures their ink and sterilizes their equipment properly. Also, if you are going to get inked think long and hard about where on your body the art is going to go. My sister has to cover up her tattoo at work with an Ink Armor sleeve:

  • Shay

    @Alex, The skin infection is caused by the bacteria, when u get a tattoo the ink is injected into your skin therefore the bacteria in the ink is injected into your skin as well, causing the skin infection.

    I really think that there should be regluations from the FDA for companies who make the product, to pervent things like this from happening. Really everything that we put on or in our bodies were taking a gamble with our health, we really don’t know what goes in what were using, eating, or the pills we take. Yes U should be aware what you are putting in/on your body, truth is a lot of us don’t know what really goes in what we eat/use.

  • Julie

    Despite it being cosmetic and a complete personal choice, I feel the FDA should have more control over cosmetics. People may think individuals who get tattoos are asking for it but what if something everyone uses like soap was found to cause some illness? Would your position still be “why do we care”?

  • June He Woo

    I have always loved tattoos. I see them on many people. I like to see beautiful tattoos on women. I really like your website, it’s very interesting. I have bookmarked it for my friends. I love our work

  • Archwright

    @Jbelkin #1.
    People who crave animal flesh are not my problem. Meat is a luxury good and isn’t necessary for survival, therefore it’s the consumer’s problem.

    See how your opinion sounds so much more crazy when I direct it at a different, more accepted group?

  • Jeremy

    I get the feeling that several people who commented here have not actually read the article. Tattoo artists are among the most heavily scrutinized businesses as far as health inspections go, so if they are displaying their certificate, you can usually count on them being clean and safe – this article shows how their supply chains are the next step that needs scrutiny. It was in no way the artists fault that this happened – they followed all laws, and even bought the tainted ink from a reputable dealer. It’s the same as anything else – sometimes quality control fails, or manufacturers take shortcuts. Sadly, a recall on tattoo ink is a little more impactful to the end user than one on lead paint on a child’s toy is.

  • Rain

    @Jbelkin #1.

    Earrings are a cosmetic choice, if people get lead poisoning from them it is not my problem. Even if it is your child, too bad. You made a decision, your problem not mine.

    Milk is a choice to eat, therefore I don’t care if it gets pasteurised and regulated, if you get listeria or tuberculosis from it, it is your problem for choosing to eat it. Nothing forced you to eat it, you chose to.

    Driving is your problem and your choice, if the steering wheel of your car comes off as you drive, it is your problem and I don’t care. You chose to drive.

    See how easy this game is played?

    You are a really good troll, see how many bites you got..?

  • Isaac

    The public health departments had to pay for this? People could afford their tattoo’s. Why can’t they afford to pay for medical treatment for infections?

  • jacksonseth

    Nice post dude…

    I like it. do you want to get some more on ink you can visit the needham-ink site… Best for the ink knowledge….

    Keep it up and concentrate more on your knowledge…


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