Got a lot of blackberries? Then check out this recipe for Blackberry Mojito Fruit Leather.

I'm not a huge fan of fruit leathers, but this turned out super good! And, really, you can't go wrong with blackberries, mint and rum.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Tattoo toxicity

The following is a draft excerpt from my book on environmental toxins that will be coming out in 2011 from New Society Publishers:

My sea turtle tattooIn 2004, the American Environmental Safety Institute filed a lawsuit against a half dozen or so tattoo ink pigment manufacturers, claiming they failed to warn California residents about exposure to hazardous materials in their inks. The lead content found in the ink needed for a medium sized tattoo could contain between 1 to 23 micrograms of lead, which is considerably more than the 0.5 microgram per-day recommended limit. Some inks also contain metals such as aluminum, arsenic, mercury and chromium, in addition to lead. The heavy metals are used to give these pigments their permanent color, not unlike other artist paints, and the type of metal depends mostly on the color pigment as well as the manufacturer.

Considering that one in four adults in the U.S. has at least one tattoo, many of them sporting quite a few, this is an issue that really needs more widespread education on the potential risks. I have two tattoos of small to medium size. Both are in areas that aren’t visible and I have no interest in getting them removed, although it would make sense since I am exposed to the metals from the pigments.

However, there are a few issues with laser tattoo removal. The first issue is that additional chemicals are used on the skin to reduce surface temperature so your skin doesn’t scar. The more commonly used chemical is tetrafluoroethane, which is a very toxic greenhouse gas. The alternative, which is considered to be more “green”, is a carbon dioxide spray, or rather, a dry ice spray, which is better for your skin and the ozone layer .

The big issue with laser tattoo removal is that, when you break down the pigments into small particles, the body has to do something with them. Research done at the National Center for Toxicological Research (NCTR) has been studying how tattoo ink breaks down in your body, either from exposure to sunlight or natural degradation, and the main question to be answered is, where does the pigment go? Are they broken down by enzymes or metabolized? At least in one study, researchers found that some pigment migrates from the tattoo site to the body’s lymph nodes . Considering that chemists at the NCTR identified low levels of carcinogens in tattoo ink, what kind of health impact is there in having a tattoo? And, if this is occurring under the normal lifetime of a tattoo, what happens when you try to remove it?

German scientists have shown that, after laser irradiation, the concentrations of toxic molecules from red and yellow tattoo inks increased up to 70-fold . Heat on the pigment triggers a chemical reaction that generates mutation-inducing and carcinogenic breakdown products that get reabsorbed by the body. At this point, it sounds more toxic to get them removed than to just leave them be.

One last point, too. The FDA warns that patients about to undergo an MRI let the technician know they have a tattoo, because it can swell or burn, most likely from the metals in the pigments. Something to keep in mind when I go visit the neurologist for that MRI for the numbness and tingling that I still have in my arms and legs.

17 comments:

Bucky said...

Not understanding why you consider tattoo ink to be an environmental toxin? It isn't actually in the environment. It is something that people knowingly choose to do to their bodies.

Is it any surprise that when you inject chemicals or put foreign objects into your body and leave them there you face some potential health risks?

This doesn't seem to be an environmental toxin like lead or mercury in our water or food.

Anonymous said...

Crap! My youthful choices are AGAIN biting me in the ass!

I will forget about getting them removed or redone to look better. I guess my mom really did know best.

Peak Oil Hausfrau said...

Thanks for the tip on the MRI. Although I don't have any tattoos, I'm going to pass that on to friends and family.

Lynn said...

Thanks for the info. I never imagined that the ink was that toxic. I assumed there was some standard that kept the risk low.(obviously, I didn't do any research on anything but design prior to having mine) I experience nearly constant itching of my current tattoo site. Maybe this explains why.

Adrienne said...

I'm pretty sure that thing about having tattoos and getting an MRI is mostly an old wives' tale type deal. I can't remember where I heard this, but a normal tattoo should cause no problems at all. If you have some jailhouse tatts or something where they didn't use regular tattoo ink, you could have an issue. Otherwise, no.

deb ... p.s. bohemian said...

I have wanted a tattoo for years but refrained because I'm sensitive to so many chemicals. After reading this I am doubly grateful I've refrained!

Alyse said...

I guess I'll not be having mine removing. I wish I could go back to 18 and tell myself what a freaking moron I'd be to get five tattoes.

I didn't even have them two years before I regretted them. Thankfully they are where no one can see them.

I was looking forward to the day they came off, but I guess that's not going to happen now.

Living Local Johnstown said...

Research the inks. I only get Vegetable Based ink. Not sure of all of the ingredients, but if you want to know, ask the tatoo artist.

Robj98168 said...

May explain why my 10+ year old tattoo aches every now and then!

Crunchy Chicken said...

Bucky - Any toxin one can be exposed to either through consumer products or background toxins, like in soil, air and water, are considered environmental toxins. Don't take the term too literally :)

As for other commenters, you need to look at the relative risk of the effects of this potential source of toxicity. There are some inks which are less of an issue than others, so if you are planning on getting a tattoo, research the inks and avoid those with higher levels of toxins (like the reds and yellows).

Karen Johnson said...

I forwarded this to my daughter who's been talking about getting a tattoo for a couple of years now. Hopefully this will arm her with some important issue to help in her decision making. Thanks alot.

Cheri said...

Very interesting post. I did not know about the risks of removing tattoos! I knew about the MRI because I got one and have a tatoo. Fortunately, my tattoo is a Samoan design that I had done in Samoa the traditional way where the ink is plant based. No metals! I had no problems with the MRI! Thank goodness. I have thought about getting another one here in the states but I will think twice now.

E said...

@ Bucky,

All these products are made somewhere, by someone. Once you die they go somewhere. We are not separate from "the environment".

Anonymous said...

I am vegan and was adamant about my artist using "vegan" ink on me. Vegan ink is 99% vegetable based. Traditional ink uses glycerin made from animal fat, tendons, etc. Also the black ink pigment is from charred bones. Gross!!

Anonymous said...

Hello! I have had 3 laser treatments in the past 2 months to remove my tattoo and for the past week have been having tingling and numbing in my hands and legs. I've been so worried about these signs being possible symptoms of MS so I've been reading up online and found this article of yours. After reading this, I'm wondering if the release of the toxic tattoo ink could have caused these symptoms. Sounds like you had a similar experience? Did you have these symptoms after having a tattoo removed?

Crunchy Chicken said...

Anonymous - I haven't had any tattoos removed for that very reason. As for your reaction, it's entirely possible - there just isn't much research out there about the impacts of tattoo removal.

So, unfortunately, I think you are treading new ground with possibly linking these up. If you are really having problems, make sure you let your health care provider know about the tattoo removal and look into possible heavy metal toxicity. Good luck!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your reply. The laser tattoo removal could very well be the reason for my symptoms. I have an appt. with a neurologist just to make sure though. Thanks again for the article... very informative!

LinkWithin