Iowa lacks oversight of body piercing

State officials, business owners support change

- Warren Stratford pierces the chest of Julie Plowman at The Ink Spot in Cedar Rapids. Both are of Cedar Rapids. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
- Warren Stratford pierces the chest of Julie Plowman at The Ink Spot in Cedar Rapids. Both are of Cedar Rapids. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

The tattoo industry in Iowa is held to high safety, sanitation, training and operational standards, but the same is not true for body piercing — a service that many tattoo establishments provide.

In fact, there is no oversight of the body piercing and modification industry in Iowa, and some state officials, legislators and local business owners want that to change.

“It’s something that comes up annually in the Legislature, but nothing ever gets passed,” said Carmily Stone, bureau chief of Environmental Health Services at the Iowa Department of Public Health.

Legislators previously have proposed piercing regulations similar to those in place for the tattoo industry that require artists to undergo first aid and blood borne pathogens training. Tattoo establishments in Iowa also must have operating procedures detailing setup and tear down practices and safety data sheets for the chemicals used on clients, according to the revised Iowa Administrative Code adopted in 2009.

Stone said her department wants the same authority over piercing and body modification, including scarring and decorative implants inserted under the skin.

“We want to make sure those are occurring in a safe environment,” she said.

Sen. Steve Sodders, D-State Center, championed a bill last year that would have created piercing and body modification regulations, including prohibiting a minor from getting a piercing or other body modification without parental permission. But, he said, that legislation got tangled up with other issues and industries,

including family planning and what degree of parental consent is needed for minors wanting to use Planned Parenthood services.

“That is one of the main reasons it ended up dying in the process,” Sodders said.

More than 30 states have body piercing regulations, most of which prohibit the piercing of a minor without parental consent, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

With Iowa slow to pass piercing regulations at the state level, a few entities have taken action at the local level, including the public health departments in Council Bluffs and Cerro Gordo County — the first county in the state to pass a body piercing ordinance in 1999. Both of those ordinances require a person to be 18 years old to get a piercing without parental consent.

Neither Linn nor Johnson counties has ordinances regulating piercing, although Johnson County’s environmental health coordinator James Lacina said Johnson officials contemplated enacting one.

“But we thought the state was working on it, so we held off,” he said.

Lacina said it is fortunate most establishments that offer piercing also offer state-regulated tattooing so inspectors at least can get into those facilities and ensure they are clean and operators are educated on sanitation.

“While we don’t inspect them, we are in there and making sure they are following the procedures for tattoos,” Lacina said.

There are 10 tattoo businesses in Johnson County, with another two about to open while Linn County has 21 tattoo establishments. Most of those businesses offer piercing as well. The public health departments have fielded a handful of complaints about sanitation practices at those shops this year.

One of the complaints in Linn County referred to an infection that developed after a piercing. In that case, the inspector visited the Cedar Rapids shop and discussed the need for cleanliness and personal hygiene but had no power to further regulate the situation.

The Iowa Department of Public Health fields 10 to 15 piercing-related complaints a month, said Talisa Miller, coordinator for the department’s tattoo program. Most of those, she said, come from parents assuming Iowa has an age limit for legal body modification.

Jared Hebl, who owns the Ink Spot Tattoo and Body Piercing, 124 Colles Rd. NE, Cedar Rapids, said he’s passionate about Iowa’s need for piercing regulations based on his experiences correcting poor work that led to infections in young clients. Last year, Hebl said, a 16-year-old girl came in with five microdermal piercings in her side that were so infected he had to cut them out and refer her to a hospital.

“This poor girl,” Hebl said. “No one that age should be getting microdermals.”

Even though Iowa doesn’t require it, Hebl said, he has strict guidelines at his shop regarding who can pierce, who can get pierced and how it’s done. The Ink Spot won’t pierce anyone under age 18 without parental consent.“We hold ourselves to a much higher standard,” Hebl said, adding that he’ll maintain strict regulations at his shop, even if Iowa doesn’t make him. “My hope is that they will eventually catch up.”

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