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Researchers Test for Toxic Tattoos

Metals in ink might pose real harm, they say

MONDAY, March 14, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- Whether it's a skull and crossbones or a girlfriend's name, the ink used in tattoos could spell out danger for wearers, researchers contend.

They believe tighter monitoring of tattoo inks and regulation of the tattooing industry may be necessary to protect tattoo clients' health.

Chemistry students at Northern Arizona University analyzed the chemical composition of 17 tattoo inks from five different manufacturers to learn more about the inks' potential health risks. They examined five brands of black ink and three brands each of red, blue, yellow and white ink.

The research was presented Sunday at the national meeting of the American Chemical Society, in San Diego.

So far, they've determined that inks vary in composition from manufacturer to manufacturer and from color to color. They also found indications of the presence of metals and are currently doing further tests to identify those metals.

While tattoo inks are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as colors and cosmetic additives, the FDA generally leaves enforcement of those regulations to local authorities. According to the researchers, that means there's no real control over what inks tattoo artists use on their clients.

This lack of government oversight could lead to a number of health problems, they say. Reports have surfaced indicating that tattoo inks can cause adverse effects in wearers, such as allergic reactions, burning sensations during magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, and the migration of tattoo inks to different areas of the body, including the lungs.

Not knowing the chemical composition of a tattoo ink makes surgery to remove a tattoo more difficult, the Arizona team added.

"Once the components of a tattoo ink have been identified, doctors removing the inks can use their knowledge of the chemical characteristics of the components to select a treatment that will be most effective and, hopefully, the least painful for the patient," researcher Leslie Wagner said in a prepared statement.

More information

The Nemours Foundation has more about tattoos.

SOURCE: American Chemical Society, news release, March 13, 2005
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