It’s national breast cancer awareness month and a picture of a woman who has covered her mastectomy scars with an intricate and quite beautiful tattoo keeps on surfacing and being removed from Facebook pages. It is a beautiful work of art, suitable for exhibiting in any art gallery, but is it a health risk? Is it just replacing one health risk with another?
Tattoos have come under less public health scrutiny than e cigarettes
One in four people in the USA have at least one tattoo and in Europe the number of people with tattoos is estimated at 100 million. Tattoos are now the adornment of choice of millennials and Gen Xers. Nearly half of millennials said they have at least one and many tattoo carriers continue to have their ink revised.
Nonetheless, tattoos have come under less scrutiny than e cigarettes when the evidence for the health risks of tattoos far exceeds the current knowledge about the health risks of vaping. The dangers of red and black inks in causing scarring and lumps are well documented; especially in overworked tattoos where, for every 20 reworked tattoos, one results in major skin complications. The impact of the psychological effects of tattoos and the difficulties in their removal also add to the overall morbidity.
Now we are learning that tattoos pose a significant risk for patients undergoing one of the best diagnostics tools we have – magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Tattoos containing iron oxide or other metal-based pigments can cause adverse reactions, including first and second-degree burns, to patients undergoing MRIs.
Part of the problem is the demise of public health. Once public health moved from eradicating infectious diseases to working on non-communicable diseases there were few “wins” to be had. The only sustainable one has been exposing the health risks of smoking. It is no surprise that vaping is a bigger target than tattoos despite the greater prevalence of the latter. The uproar that undoubtedly would ensue if public health officials started speaking out against tattooing is likely to keep those in the know silent.