60-Second Science

Tattoo Infections Traced to Ink Supply

An outbreak of bacterial infections among patrons of a clean tattoo parlor was traced to a premixed bottle of gray ink carrying the bacteria. Karen Hopkin reports

Thinking about getting a new tattoo? Maybe a nice 3-D double helix or an I-heart-Higgs Bosons. Well, you might wind up getting some mycobacteria with your body art. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has turned up about two dozen cases of this infection from contaminated tattoo ink.

Last January, public health officials in western New York state launched an investigation after a tattoo recipient reported a persistent rash—itchy red bumps all over his new tat. A skin sample tested positive for Mycobacterium chelonae, a microbe common in tap water.

A list of the tattoo artist’s clients turned up another 19 cases of the rash, including 14 confirmed infections with the same bug. The tattoo parlor itself was clean, no bacteria in the water supply. But a bottle of premixed gray ink turned up positive.

This gray wash, which is used to give tats a shaded, 3-D quality, was most likely contaminated during its manufacture and has since been recalled. But not before a handful of additional cases cropped up in elsewhere around the country. [Byron S. Kennedy et al., Outbreak of Mycobacterium chelonae Infection Associated with Tattoo Ink, in The New England Journal of Medicine]

So if you’re itching to express yourself, a tattoo might indeed be just what the doctor ordered.

—Karen Hopkin

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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