Tainted ink blamed for tattoo patrons’ skin infections

Three people who got tattoos at a parlor in Lynnwood last year developed severe skin infections that health officials are tracing to a bacteria in the ink.

An Everett woman and Bothell woman are recovering from their infections. A third person from King County also developed an infection from a tattoo at the same parlor.

Health officials say the Lynnwood tattoo parlor, which they are not naming, followed all regulations and remains open. Two other people who got tattoos at a parlor in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood also became infected. In addition, 24 other people have experienced infections that are believed to have been caused by tattoos at the same locations but have yet to be confirmed, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In all cases, investigators concluded the culprit was the ink, said Michael Kinzer, an epidemic intelligence officer for the CDC working with King County’s health department. There are no health regulations that address the production of tattoo ink, he said.

The incidents occurred between September and December of last year. Most of those infected first sought treatment from the tattoo artists, he said, and did not report their situations to authorities until February.

“It’s a slow proceeding infection,” Kinzer said.

The illnesses here were caused by a bacterial cousin of tuberculosis named Mycobacterium chelonae, officials said. The bacteria can cause itchy and painful pustules that can take months to clear up, and involve treatment with harsh antibiotics with unpleasant side effects. Severe infections can cause scarring, Kinzer said.

The Everett woman, in her 40s, and the Bothell woman, in her 30s, are recovering after antibiotic treatment, Kinzer said. A few of the others also required antibiotic treatment, while the infections incurred by some were less severe, he said. Some of the patients have experienced scarring.

All the infections have been traced to diluted ink used for shaded areas of tattoos, Kinzer said. The bacteria was likely in the water used to dilute the ink before packaging. That brand of ink has since been pulled from the market.

While sterilization of needles and other procedures at tattoo establishments are regulated by the state Department of Licensing, the purity of tattoo ink is not addressed in state or federal law, Kinzer said.

“There’s no such thing as an FDA-approved ink for use in tattoos,” he said.

This could be changing. Kinzer said the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is considering increasing its regulation of the tattoo industry, though it’s unclear in what form.

Other outbreaks have occurred in different parts of the country, according to the CDC. In the largest of these, 19 people in Rochester, N.Y., ended up with bubbly rashes on their new tattoos, researchers reported. In the past year, there have been 22 confirmed cases and more than 30 suspected cases of the skin infection in Colorado, Iowa, New York in addition to Washington, health officials said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Safety tips

Anyone considering getting a tattoo should take the following precautions, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

n Use parlors approved or registered by local jurisdictions.

n Request inks that are manufactured specifically for tattoos.

n Ensure that tattoo artists follow appropriate hygienic practices.

n Be aware of the potential for infection after tattooing and promptly seek medical care if skin problems occur.

For more information, go to http://tinyurl.com/cyhmn9l.

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