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