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Are Tattoos Toxic? New Research Shows Endocrine Disruptors, Metals and Carcinogens in Tattoo Ink

Research has turned up troubling findings about toxic chemicals in tattoo inks, including phthalates, metals, and hydrocarbons that are carcinogens and endocrine disruptors.

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"Because the dyes and inks used in tattoos have not been approved by FDA, we do not know the specific composition of what these inks and dyes may contain," an FDA spokesperson told Environmental Health News. "Therefore, we are unable to evaluate for chronic health concerns, such as cancer."

Now, the FDA is getting curious about the ingredients. In 2003 and 2004, the FDA received its largest cluster of complaints, more than 150, from people on the giving and receiving end of tattoos. Since that time the FDA has begun more research on tattoo inks to answer fundamental questions, according to the FDA spokesperson.

One major question  investigated by the FDA is where does the ink go when the tattoo fades over time or from sun exposure?

Preliminary results show that a common pigment in yellow tattoo inks, Pigment Yellow 74, may be broken down by the body's enzymes, according to the FDA. Sunlight also breaks it down into colorless components of unknown toxicity. Also, when skin cells containing ink are killed by sunlight or laser light, the ink breakdown products could spread throughout the body.

Previous studies have shown that tattoo inks  move into people's lymph nodes, but “whether the migration of tattoo ink has health consequences or not is still unknown,” according to a  2009 FDA consumer update. Lymph nodes are part of the body’s system for filtering out disease-causing organisms.

The FDA said "as new information is assessed, the agency considers whether additional actions are necessary to protect public health."

Because of the chemicals involved, California requires all tattoo shops to warn customers. A state law, known as Prop 65, requires warnings whenever people are exposed to chemicals linked to cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm. The warning is included in the release forms that people sign before getting tattooed in California.

The lack of FDA regulation and the California warnings haven't slowed the tattoo business, where respected artists command between $125 and $200 per hour. Artists today build relationships with dedicated clients, who rarely ask about the long-term risks of tattoo inks.

"I don't have any clients that ask me that," said tattoo artist Jorell Elie of The Honorable Society in West Hollywood, Calif. "I don't really tattoo as many one-time clients anymore so most of my clients are fully aware of any  – if any  – risks that go into getting tattoos."

One of Elie's clients, Eric Blevens, of Brooklyn, has nearly a dozen tattoos. His latest, done by Elie, is a tribute to his pit bull, named Kweli, and covers most of the left side of his torso. During a recent vacation, Blevens said Elie constantly bugged him about keeping his tattoos shielded from the sun, which could cause the art to fade.

Aside from a small reaction to pink pigments, Blevens hasn't had any problems with tattoo inks and said he considers them safe. Through his relationship with Elie, any safety concerns he may have had in the past have faded.

"I genuinely trust him," Blevens said. "He shows a lot of concern and care for his work."

Even people with more simple tastes don't seem concerned about the safety of tattoo inks. Melissa Taylor, a 30-year-old mother and banker in Warner Robins, Ga., said she hasn't worried much about her ink. She got a small butterfly tattoo, about the size of a 50-cent piece, on her left hip when she was 19 and hasn't had any problems. 

"I did a little bit of research because I wanted to go to a good, reputable place, not some hole-in-the-wall," Taylor said.

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