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DIRTY NEEDLES

Oregon Health Standards Set Up a False Sense of Security

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SIX MONTHS AGO, Julie laid down $75 for two, 16-gauge rings to be planted in the soft spot between her areola and her nipple. She was so ecstatic that she didn't mind the pain--or give much thought to the hygiene of her piercer.

"I just looked some place up in the phone book and made an appointment," she said. "I figured, they're all the same, right?" Julie (not her real name) is typical of the piercing demographic--a 22-year-old PSU student--young, hip, and unaccustomed to worrying too much about her health. She grew up the child of a physician. A few years earlier, she had pierced her own ears, and when she went for her next piercing, she didn't even consider health perils. "They had some regulation-like documents on the wall," she said.

Five years ago, Oregon put in place a set of body piercing regulations. It was an unprecedented move, as only a handful of states have attempted to create a mechanism to regulate the sprawling and, at times, perilous profession of body piercing. With detailed sanitation codes for piercers to follow, the move seemed a promising and compassionate gesture to protect a population that the legislature otherwise largely ignores. Yet a survey by the Mercury of piercing establishments found that, with unprosecuted violations and lax inspections, these regulations provide more lip service than actual help. Worse yet, as Julie discovered, the beguiling illusion that these establishments are regulated--and therefore safe--may be more dangerous than a system where the buyer knows to beware.

One evening, four weeks after Julie's piercing, she began feeling feverish. Before then, she had no outward signs of infection. That evening, though, she noticed a red, puffy mark appearing, not on her nipple where the piercing was, but inches away, on her breast.

"I had an internal infection," she explained, "one that the doctor told me later was at a very advanced stage." After two days spent lying in bed and crying, the antibiotics that her doctor gave her kicked in and she recovered. "I think it would've been better," says Julie "if there weren't any regulations at all. At least I would've known I had to be more careful about it."

Research by the Mercury and an investigation of several piercing establishments around Portland found that the inspection process does scant little to protect the health of piercees. The process to become a piercer is so easy that all one needs is $35 and a social security number.

The exact scope of the problem is impossible to determine. The set of regulations passed in 1995 put in place the Body Piercing Program as part of the Oregon Health Licensing Office to oversee the 175 piercing establishments around the state. Each year, the Piercing Program fields about 24 complaints regarding everything from the ugliness of an earring to the uncleanness of a piercing joint. The Better Business Bureau estimates that registered complaints represent less than 30 percent of actual piercing complications. Even fewer people know about the Piercing Program.

Further clouding the exact size of this health concern is the inability to precisely link an internal infection with an unsanitary piercing. "There's no way to tell, for sure, what the cause of an infection is," explained family practice physician Scott Fields from OHSU. "But getting pierced in an unhygienic facility certainly increases that risk."

"It's not often that we see people with serious complications from their piercings," continued Field. "But it can potentially be a very risky thing--particularly the tongue piercing, because it is so close to the neck."

Compared to the food service industry--regulated by a similar state agency, (Oregon Health Division) and where sanitation is a public health concern--the lax regulation of piercers is particularly alarming. Before opening for business, potential restaurateurs must have their kitchen approved by a health inspector. In contrast, a piercing facility needs only a business address and $250 to obtain a facility license.

The lurking risks stem not only from the ease with which one is able to obtain a license, but also the lack of supervision given by the Piercing Program to facilities. After sending in $250 to obtain a license, ideally a piercing facility would be inspected within the next year. But, admits Bob Gruchallaa, Senior Enforcement officer for the Oregon Health Licensing Office, the agency commonly falls short of this goal.

"We just don't have the finances to always do so," admitted Gruchallaa. The Health Licensing Office currently employs four full-time inspectors who, in total, undertake approximately 20 inspections daily. The large jurisdiction that includes the state's tattoo parlors and electrolysis providers, admits Gruchallaa, pushes inspectors to their "absolute limit."

The inadequacy is due, in part, to the relatively new field of body piercing regulation. "Body piercing is more prevalent than people realize, and the risks and hazards that are associated just haven't been brought to the forefront," explained Gruchallaa.

"In my experience with national organizations, they're usually impressed that we have laws dealing with this," said Gruchallaa. Washington, for example, has no laws specifically dealing with body piercing.

In addition to limited resources, the Mercury's investigation also revealed that inefficiency in the agency itself may also lead to an inability to gauge and police the problem. After receiving an anonymous complaint about the safety of one store in particular, the Mercury requested records of complaints about La Belle Vie, a piercing store in Lloyd Center. "It's one of the most irresponsible stores in Portland," claimed the source. Indeed, Gruchallaa reported 14 complaints filed by customers between 1998 and 1999. However, according to Gruchallaa, none of these complaints warranted punishment.

Several requests for records of these investigations were bungled by the Piercing Program. An initial request by telephone was delayed when the agency stated that such requests must be in writing. The agency failed to respond to the Mercury's subsequent written request. When contacted a week later, the agency informed the Mercury that they lost our phone number. Moreover, they claimed that no records existed, as no violations had been discovered. Ultimately, La Belle Vie suffered no repercussions from the 14 people who filed complaints.

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