Toxic inks in tattoos a concern

​Risky levels of heavy metals - including arsenic and lead - have been found in tattoo inks imported to New Zealand, but tattooists are reassuring the public that the brands the Ministry of Health has warned them about are not in mainstream use.

New Zealanders’ love affair with skin art appears inked into our national psyche, with 20 per cent of the population believed to have a tattoo, including one in three people under the age of 30.

But the levels of some of the heavy metals contained in tattoo inks have concerned health officials, with at least one chemical highlighted in a Ministry of Health survey of imported tattoo inks known to pose skin cancer risks.​​

However, director of Public Health Dr Mark Jacobs said the greatest risk in getting inked was poor hygiene practices.

There is still much research to be carried out as the risks associated with tattooing are poorly understood, but the probability of harm from tattoo ink ingredients was a ‘‘ likely theoretical risk,’’ according to the report.

Allergies, skin inflammation, and systemic diseases could result from exposure to certain levels of the chemicals the Environmental Protection Authority ( EPA) tested for, but researchers do not yet know whether tattoo ink is absorbed into the body through the skin, the report said.

Of the 169 inks tested, four per cent contained arsenic, one in five contained too much lead, and almost two- thirds contained risky levels of cadmium.

Chinese imports Tattoo Color King and Intenze had the highest number of non- compliant inks, both containing risky levels of arsenic and lead.

National Poisons Centre medical toxicologist Dr Michael Beasley said the report was concerning but not surprising.

The possibility of harm from chemicals depended on how someone was exposed, and researchers were yet to explore indepth how tattoo ink chemicals affected health, Dr Beasley said. But arsenic’s presence in tattoo inks posed serious risks, he said. ‘‘ The greatest theoretical concern would be with proven carcinogenic metals, such as arsenic, where even low exposures, if chronic, could be of concern. It is known that arsenic can cause skin cancer, at least with doses arising from other routes of exposure.’’

In 2010 Trade Me was forced to suspend the sale of tattoo ink kits after being alerted to potential safety risks by the EPA, prompting the removal of more than 1000 products from the website. Tightened regulation of tattoo and permanent makeup product imports to New Zealand followed.

Palmerston North’s Powerhouse Tattoos studio manager Fiona Stone cautioned against a kneejerk reaction, welcoming the report as an example of how carefully the tattoo industry was monitored. She recognised the names of several brands listed in the report but said most were not ‘‘ mainstream’’.

The Chinese brands highlighted as problematic were associated with parallel importers, but most Kiwi tattooists preferred to buy European or American- approved products, Ms Stone said.

MidCentral Medical officer of health Dr Rob Weir said he was not aware of any complications specifically related to tattoo inks but he was aware of a small number of cases of infection.

Manawatu Standard