A new study suggests that so-called nanoparticles from inks used in tattoos could increase the risk of certain cancers. Why is this, and what are the health implications for those who already have tattoos?
The new research found evidence that toxic nanoparticles from tattoo ink can infiltrate the bloodstream and accumulate in regions of the body like the spleen and kidneys. This could potentially reduce function in those organs and could over time increase the risk of cancers.
Desmond Tobin, director of Bradford University’s center for skin sciences, is quoted as saying he was “gobsmacked” to find that there is no regulation “whatsoever” of ink dye production in the EU, and that “We need to do more work, but there is no question that these substances can be toxic. Some inks are sold with little or no accompanying product data, and their composition may remain uncertain even at the point of use.”
He is quoted as adding that none of the research we have is yet conclusive because, “It takes a long time for the multiple-step nature of cancer to show its face,” but that he doesn’t think waiting the couple of decades it would take to get a true sense of the risk is appropriate given that there are steps we can take now — such as eliminating known harmful chemicals in tattoo ink — that could cut the risk whatever the risk rate turns out to be.
This research appears to be built on previous studies, such as a study from 2011, that found cause for further investigations into nanoparticle infiltration.
A separate study by a team headed by Jorgen Serup, professor of dermatology at Copenhagen’s university hospital, found that 13 out of 21 commonly used European inks have carcinogenic chemicals in them like mercury and cobalt.
It was once believed that it took quite high concentrations of these chemicals to damage the body, but more recent research has found that even in small quantities, these chemicals can be dangerous.
Major tattoo ink manufacturers have reportedly acknowledged that up to 5% of tattoo inks may contain carcinogens, but say they are working to reduce that figure to zero.
The American FDA, which does in fact regulate tattoo ink, has previously warned of other dangers surrounding tattoo ink.
Contaminated inks have caused serious infections, most recently across four states in late 2011 and early 2012. Among the most concerning contamination threats was M. chelonae, which is capable of causing lung disease, infection in the joints, wider organ infection and eye problems. The FDA has also warned that, despite tattoo artists taking every precaution and following good practice, inks can be shipped to them containing bacteria, mold and fungi and that they would be unlikely to see any signs of contamination.
The FDA is currently assessing the risks of carcinogens in tattoo ink, work that will remain ongoing for quite some time.
What Does This Mean if You Have a Tattoo or are Thinking of Getting One?
This research should not be treated as saying someone with a tattoo is definitely at a higher risk of getting cancer, it is simply more of an early warning about a possible link so that steps can be taken to reduce risk factors. Also, and despite the above, it is worth noting that broadly speaking, tattoos and the process of tattooing are both noted for having a strong safety profile.
As researcher Jorgen Serup has said, it’s not about warning people away from getting tattoos either. Instead, this is about making sure the consumer is aware of the risks and is capable of making an informed decision.
Next Page: Find out why getting a tattoo can be a risky business and how you can take steps to help your inking be problem free.
Image credits: Thinkstock.
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