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Know What the Risks Are


So what health risks are kids exposing themselves to from tattoos and body piercings?

If parents have concerns, they should find out the facts, said Dr. Anthony Wolf. "When talking to kids, the better informed you are, the more effect you'll have."

Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has never traced an AIDS case to a tattoo parlor, people getting tattoos and body piercings run the same kind of health risks of anyone sharing needles. A very real danger is the risk of contracting hepatitis B or C.

Hepatitis is a viral infection that causes inflammation of the liver. It destroys liver cells and leaves its victims at much greater risk for liver cancer. Many more people have hepatitis than AIDS. According to the American Liver Foundation, there are an estimated 3.5 million people in this country chronically infected with hepatitis C and 1.2 million with hepatitis B. While the human immunodeficiency virus dies in 12 minutes, the hepatitis virus can live for 10 days on a surface. "It's relatively hardy and it can live for a long time," said Mike Tormey of Los Angeles County's Acute Communicable Disease Control Unit.

There are no laws in Los Angeles County mandating health inspections for tattoo parlors and piercing studios. According to Carl Charles of the Los Angeles County Health Department, bill AP 487, which is pending in Sacramento, proposes they be regulated. "We have some concern," he said. "The current regulations are vague and dated."

For now, it is up to the customer to select a piercer or tattoo artist who practices in a safe, hygienic manner that does not put people at risk for blood borne diseases such as AIDS and hepatitis. A slight decline in the rate of hepatitis has been attributed to AIDS education, which does not include information on staying away from a tattooist or piercer who does not use proper sterilization practices. As Santa Barbara tattoo artist Pat Fish put it: "I always warn parents, if a person is willing to commit a misdemeanor to tattoo a kid, how much are they going to care about sterilization?"

Other tips:

* Never go to a scratcher--someone working out of a booth, a back room or a van, where it is impossible to maintain sterile conditions.

* An autoclave sterilizer must be used on tattooing and piercing instruments.

* Piercing guns should only be used on earlobes because they cannot be properly sterilized.

* New and sterile needles should be used for each tattoo or piercing.

* Practitioners should wear clean latex medical gloves, dispose of needles after each use in puncture-proof containers and throw tissues away in plastic-lined containers.

* The tattoo artist should use small, disposable containers of ink. Vaseline and other ointments should be taken from containers with sterile spreaders.

* Because belly button piercings take up to a year to heal, one should be especially careful with them. "The belly button is just a few inches from the Fallopian tubes," Fish said, "and thus not a good place for infections in young women."

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