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No federal law regulates tattooing; welcome to the Wild West

A number of years ago, my wife, Gena, was given multiple routine MRIs to check on an arthritic condition. To generate a better image, a contrast dye is often routinely injected into the area of the imaging. The chemical agent most commonly used is a heavy metal called gadolinium.

These tests yielded little about arthritis, but they did result in gadolinium poisoning. In theory, gadolinium should be expelled from the body through the kidneys. When gadolinium breaks into its free form before being expelled from the body, as was Gena’s case, a patient can suffer adverse and severe reactions. Gadolinium poisoning nearly took her life and is still the subject of a pending legal action. More than five years post-gadolinium poisoning, she continues to require regular stem cell therapies and other treatments to heal her central nervous system.

Given that experience, you can imagine my reaction to tattoos and the steadily growing practice of artificially injuring the body by injecting inks, often of unknown origins, into the skin, the body’s largest organ containing blood vessels, nerves and immune cells.

If you are one of the many people who have willingly injected such substances under your skin, I don’t mean to cause you alarm. The act of tattooing the body is a phenomenon that has been around for some 6,000 years. According to the History of Tattoos website, it is estimated that 36 percent of Americans today from the ages of 18 to 29 have at least one tattoo. Another 11 percent of tattooed Americans are from 50 to 64 years old. Approximately 36 percent of military veterans currently serving in the Army have tattoos.

Tattooing is a choice equally appealing to men and women. Women are said to comprise half of those who get tattoos. According to MarketResearch.com, the tattoo and body art industry is a $3 billion business and growing strongly. Seventeen percent of those who have tattoos regret them, and this statistic includes more women than men. This has led to a burgeoning $694 million tattoo removal industry that MarketResearch.com estimates will continue to grow 18 percent per year. The average cost of laser procedures to remove tattoos is said to run about $1,400, over seven sessions. Concerns have also been raised about the health implications of laser tattoo removal. For example, when the pigments are fractured and fragmented under the skin, where do they go?

The reality is tattoos are here to stay. But before you lay one on, I would only ask that you take a moment to consider the following: To date, tattoo health and safety regulations have focused mainly on short-term risks such as infections. Little is actually known about long-term risks of living with ink under your skin. Very few studies have focused on the biological impact tattoos have on the body. The basic black ink used in tattooing has traditionally been made of iron. Some tattoo inks contain harmful and even toxic ingredients, ranging from metallic salts and lead to plastics, formaldehyde and a range of other chemicals. Many colored inks have been found to contain heavy metals such as mercury, cadmium, arsenic, chromium and lead.

There is no such thing as United States Department of Agriculture-certified organic tattoo ink. Though modern tattoo inks mostly contain organic pigments, they can also include preservatives and contaminants like nickel, arsenic and lead.

The fact is most people do not know a lot about what ingredients go into tattoo ink. The Food and Drug Administration technically regulates it, but, by its own admission, it has not done much in the way of oversight — until recently.

In May of this year, the FDA announced the recall of six types of tattoo ink because of bacterial contamination. The tattoo inks, made by a handful of manufacturers, are contaminated with microorganisms that can lead to serious injuries and an increased risk of infection. The announcement was followed by an advisory directing consumers to ask tattoo artists or studios what ink they use before a procedure. It also directed studios and artists to no longer use the recalled inks — hardly what you would call stern oversight. In fairness, many tattoo artists today recognize the importance of using nontoxic inks in their work. Many will also tell you the industry needs stronger regulations to weed out the bad operators.

The point I am making is to not take the risks lightly. Do not let the ease of the process stop you from thinking carefully about the application of permanent body art injected into your skin. If you are sure you want to make this move, be smart about it. Research the parlor; ask questions. Who does the tattooing? Are they licensed? Does the tattoo artist wear gloves? What inks do they use? Does the tattoo artist sterilize nondisposable equipment? Follow the aftercare instructions and report immediately to a physician any problems that occur after tattooing. Better than that, for openers, do not act in haste because of a trend.

Write to Chuck Norris ([email protected]) with your questions about health and fitness.

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