Tattoos and blood donors: the New York disconnect

Posted at: 11/08/2012 5:46 PM
Updated at: 11/09/2012 4:47 PM
By: Benita Zahn

There's been an explosion in the tattoo business. No longer the domain of soldiers and tough guys, body art has gone mainstream with women leading the way.

"I would probably say that's probably 75 percent of my business," said Albany tattoo artist Tom Spaulding.

As the ranks of body art devotees swells, in New York there's a reverse effect on available blood donors.
"I was disappointed I couldn't give blood because it had been a while and I wanted to," said Jessica Froelich. 

Six months after Froelich got a tattoo, she was turned away from donating blood because of a rule she wasn't aware of. In New York you have to wait a year before donating blood after getting a tattoo. That's because, unlike 31 other states -- including Vermont, New York does not regulate tattoo salons.

Red Cross spokesperson Maureen Wellman says FDA rules forbid them from accepting donated blood from folks recently tattooed in unregulated states, despite all the testing the Red Cross does on blood.

The regulations are clear.

"What that means that those tattoo parlors are inspected on a yearly basis and they have to use 'single use' sterile needles," Wellman explained.

Spaulding has been in business as a tattoo artist for 34 years. He's as meticulous with cleanliness as he is with his artwork.

"You want best for everybody," he said.

So he's taken a course in blood safety. He has an autoclave that heat-sterilizes his equipment. He wears gloves. The needles are single use. Also, since he's in Albany County, which does regulate tattoo parlors, he's inspected twice a year.

Like many tattoo artists, Spaulding welcomes statewide regulations because right now it's a county-by-county proposition and some counties have no regulations.

"There's not enough of the Health Department to go around," Spaulding said. "And the other side of the issue is people can go anywhere and buy tattooing equipment."

But that's about to change. After more than a decade of tinkering with regulations, the state Health Department appears ready to ink the deal -- in part because we've been asking questions.

"Enforcement was, I think, the biggest issue that had to be overcome because if it's not well enforced it's not going be an effective regulation," state Health Department spokesman Peter Constantatkes said.

Constantatkes says each county will be responsible for that enforcement and permit fees will cover the costs.  He says details are still being worked out. Public hearings should take place in the spring.

It can't come soon enough for the Red Cross, continually struggling with blood shortages.

'"Particularly on high school and on college campuses, which are about 18 percent of our blood donations, it does make a difference" Wellman said.