Patients presenting with strange, reddish-purple rashes woven into their recently inked tattoos started to show up in doctors’ offices in New York State in October 2011.
The patients at first were given topical steroids, as the rash was diagnosed as being a type of allergic reaction, an allergic-contact dermatitis. However, with one patient who had the tattoo rash on his arm, the steroid treatment only made the affliction worse, and Dr. Mark Goldgeier, a dermatologist who was treating him, decided to perform a skin biopsy.
What Dr. Golgeier saw surprised him: the biopsy contained an alarming amount of bacteria similar to that of tuberculosis. The patient was told he had TB and had to start an entire year of treatment to beat the infection.
The doctor then called the Monroe County Health Department, where Dr. Byron Kennedy took over the investigation as to how the patient contracted the bacteria. The doctors agreed that the infection most likely got picked up at some time during the tattooing process, but when the doctors found the tattoo parlour where the patient got his tattoo had sterile equipment and was a hygienically run company, the mystery deepened.
Eventually, what the investigation found was that the tattoo artist had used a new grey coloured ink from Arizona; and although the ink had passed the Food and Drug Administration’ s regulations, the distilled water used in the ink was contaminated with the Mycobacterium chelonae.
The problem with the FDA monitoring is that while ink pigments are subject to monitoring, there is no law requiring them to be sterile. Some local jurisdictions require that tattoo ink be sterile, but many locations have no such rules.
While in this case the source of the contamination was located and appropriate steps were taken to get the contaminated ink off the market, there is still a very real risk of picking up an infection even in a sterile, hygienically run tattoo parlour due to contaminants present in ink.