Dallas Tattoos are the leading cause of hepatitis C, according to a study by researchers here.
The study found that tattoos from commercial parlors caused about 40 percent of the cases of the potentially fatal virus, which attacks the liver and causes cirrhosis and cancer.
"We need to warn the public that this is not necessarily a safe practice, and there may be long-term consequences here," said Dr. Robert Haley, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center chief of epidemiology and co-author of the study.
Hepatitis C is the most common chronic viral infection and affects nearly 2 percent of the nation's population. In 1998, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published information saying tattooing was not a risk factor for hepatitis C. Only 1 percent of patients reported a history of tattooing, the agency said, noting that no data exist to show tattoos caused an increased risk for hepatitis C.
In the newly released study, which was published in the March issue of the journal Medicine, Dr. Paul Fischer of Presbyterian Hospital of Dallas interviewed 626 people in North Texas in 1991 and 1992 about their risk factors for hepatitis C.
His data found 52 people with tattoos from commercial parlors, one-third of whom were infected with hepatitis C. The people with tattoos could not be linked to any other risk factors, researchers said. Only 3.5 percent of patients without tattoos were infected.
People who received tattoos in a commercial parlor were nine times more likely to be infected with the virus than people without tattoos, according to the study.
Haley said hepatitis C could be spread by the reuse of needles or dye during tattooing, inadequate sterilization and other unsafe practices. He recommended that anyone with tattoos be tested for the virus, which may not display symptoms for 10 to 30 years. If caught early, hepatitis C can be treated.
Researchers said they did not release the study for nearly a decade after the data were collected because they thought other research articles would address the issue. But that didn't happen, Haley said.
Haley said the 1998 CDC findings influenced researchers to present their study and show evidence to the contrary.
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Mark Thompson, tattoo artist at Trilogy Tattoo and Obscurities Body Piercing in Oak Lawn, said that he had not seen the study but that he was skeptical of its findings.
Industry standards have improved significantly in recent years, he said, as has scrutiny from the Health Department.
Thompson said most tattoo artists use strict sterilization procedures for their own health as well as their clients'. But he agreed with the study's findings that state inspectors should keep a close watch on the industry.
"There's a bad shop here and there, just like there's a bad doctor or bad dentist," Thompson said.
The study's findings weren't surprising to Ian Mohan, head piercer at Cat Tattoo in Addison who also does tattoos. His shop has strict sterilization standards, but many do not, he said.
"If you go into a clean shop, it's perfectly safe," he said.
Haley said that though the Texas Department of Health regulates tattoo parlors, the industry has not faced close scrutiny because of a lack of evidence linking tattoos to infections such as hepatitis C.
Haley said the study lists tattoos as the top behavior risk for contracting the virus, surpassing intravenous drug use, blood transfusions and hospital workers stuck with needles.
Haley said the risk is lower for other blood-borne diseases such as HIV, which causes AIDS. That's because hepatitis C is more easily passed through a small amount of blood than HIV.