Tattoos: risky business?

Body-art shops have little oversight

Ben Lucas, owner of Eye of Jade Tattoo in Chico, colors in a tattoo on Chico resident Adam Simas.

Ben Lucas, owner of Eye of Jade Tattoo in Chico, colors in a tattoo on Chico resident Adam Simas.

Photo By Stacey Kennelly

For more info on the Butte County Public Health Department’s voluntary Safe Body Art certification program, visit their web site.

“Think before you ink.”

That saying is sound advice, considering tattoo and body-piercing shops in California are subject to few regulations.

Brittney Aanestad, who recently completed an educational study about the risks associated with body art, said that’s likely to surprise a lot of people.

As a part of a semester-long project, the Chico State nursing major, along with fellow student Sheng Thao, surveyed 100 of her peers—71 of whom reported having at least one piercing or tattoo—to gauge how much they knew about the risks and regulations in place for local body-art shops. She was shocked to discover that 88 assumed the state keeps tabs on the shops’ practices. She was also surprised to find out that few of the students could identify the risks associated with body-art procedures.

Currently, California body-art shops must register with their respective county health departments. Aside from being required to submit a report to the health department when customers or employees report having certain communicable illnesses—a list of about 80 diseases that can be passed from person to person, such as HIV, food-borne diseases and hepatitis—the shops are on their own when it comes to following safe procedures.

“People are just trusting that they’re going to be taken care of, and that [everything is] regulated,” Aanestad said. “But people need to protect themselves when they’re engaging in any risky activity.”

This lack of awareness is becoming a bigger concern for health professionals as tattoos and body piercings become increasingly mainstream, said Ellen Michels, a public-education health specialist with the Butte County Department of Public Health.

While other activities involving needles—such as IV drug use—are much riskier and result in far more diseases than tattooing and body piercing, Michels said it’s important that the state regulate any activity that involves the exchange of blood. Michels hopes to see the state pass legislation that will regulate business practices, since the county doesn’t have the time or money to act as an enforcement agency for body-art shops.

State health officials have been trying to get an effective bill in place for many years, said Brad Banner, director of Butte County Environmental Health. AB 186, passed in 1997, required body-art shops to participate in annual inspections by the health department (on top of registering with the county). However, officials were unable to perform inspections without enforceable standards and guidelines.

The California Conference of Local Health Officers—a body of officials who make recommendations on appropriate health policies—even submitted suggested guidelines to the California Department of Health Services at one point, but a regulation was never enacted, Banner said.

In response to AB 186’s insufficiency, Assemblywoman Fiona Ma (D-San Francisco) authored AB 517. The Safe Body Art Act would hold businesses to stricter regulations under state law, assessing the shops for such things as proper employee hygiene and requiring that they have nonporous and washable floors, walls and ceilings, said Banner, who strongly supports the bill. Gov. Schwarzenegger vetoed the bill in January, but it has been amended and reintroduced.

Banner said the county is realistic about the fact that body-art safety isn’t first on the state’s list of priorities, and it may take several years for AB 517 to pass. So last year, he and a group of Chico State environmental-health students created a county program that mirrored the bill for body-art-shop owners in Butte County who wanted to voluntarily meet the requirements.

However, since its creation more than a year ago, only one shop—Eye of Jade Tattoo on Wall Street in Chico—has taken advantage of the intensive program, in which Banner and his associates do an on-site inspection to assess whether the shop satisfies the bill’s checklist of requirements.

The Public Health Department looks at such things as employee training and the quality of equipment used, including whether the shop’s autoclave—a device that sterilizes surgical instruments by heating them above the boiling point—is working properly. If a shop is not up to par, Banner said the department quietly works with its owners to solve those problems before making the results public.

Banner said he followed up by sending additional correspondence to more than 20 body-art shops throughout the county. He received little to no response.

“It’s kind of disappointing,” he said.

He did note that many of the letters he sent out in January have since been returned by the post office—a sign of high turnover among local body-art shops.

Ben Lucas, owner of Eye of Jade Tattoo, said that paying close attention to health and safety risks is a matter of “basic ethics.” He said participating in the county’s voluntary training program last year was an easy way to improve his business and show support for safe practices.

“I don’t know about other shops and what other shops do,” he said. “I just know what I can do to provide the best possible service to my clients.”