Contaminated tattoo ink has been linked to serious infections in at least four states during 2011 and 2012, states the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The agency cautions consumers that even tattoo artists who sterilize equipment properly and follow required sanitation procedures may have issues with contaminated ink.
Currently, the primary concern of the FDA centers on ink contaminated with nontuberculous Mycobacteria (NTM), a family of bacteria containing several species responsible for organ infections, eye problems, joint infections and lung disease.
According to NTM info & research, Inc., NTM bacteria exist naturally in the environment, primarily in water and soil. While some strains can be treated with short-term doses of medication, other strains can require complex treatments lasting months.
The FDA investigation into the ink issues began in January of 2012 when seven people in Monroe County, New York reported NTM infections. All seven people had received tattoos from the same artist from the same supply of ink. Twelve more people later came forward, and of the total 19 reports involving a single tattoo artist, 14 were confirmed to have the same type of NTM infection.
Additional reports filtered in to the FDA from Iowa, Colorado and Washington, but the cases in those states involved ink from a manufacturer different from the one supplying the New York business.
Eventually, the FDA investigation resulted in a recall on certain brands of tattoo ink.
NTM is not the only concern, however, the FDA cautions. Tattoo ink and the pigments used for color can also be prone to contamination from fungi, mold and other bacteria.
Because of the difficulty detecting contamination and the risk associated with the ink, Linda Katz, M.D., M.P.H., director of FDA’s Office of Cosmetics and Colors, states any tattoo-related complications should be immediately reported to the FDA’s MedWatch program.
“Reporting an infection to FDA and the artist is important. Once the problem is reported, FDA can investigate, and the artist can take steps to prevent others from being infected,” said epidemiologist Katherine Hollinger, D.V.M., M.P.H., from the Office of Cosmetics and Colors.
For tattoo artists looking to decrease the risk of passing NTM on to clients, the FDA recommends the avoidance of non-sterile water use for washing skin or diluting inks and to not use inks past their expiration dates.
Even when these precautions are taken, however, ink can be contaminated during the manufacturing process through the use of contaminated ingredients or inappropriate development processes which allow bacteria to survive.
Clients who suspect they have an NTM infection should seek treatment immediately, and symptoms include:
- Red rash at tattoo site
- Swelling at tattoo site
- Itching or pain at the tattoo site
Symptoms may not occur until two to three weeks after getting the tattoo. If any of the above are noted, a report should be made to the FDA as well as to the tattoo artist.