At a time when health officials are warning of a potential shortage in the U.S. blood supply, many teens and young adults are finding themselves in the surprising position of being turned away as potential donors because of their tattoos.
Tattoos and body piercings are lumped in a category with acupuncture and electrolysis. Blood centers are concerned over the potential of spreading infections such as hepatitis C and the HIV virus.
Food and Drug Administration rules specify anyone who gets a tattoo or has a piercing of a body part other than the ear cannot donate blood for 12 months.
"We need to have a balance. We want to have an adequate supply, but first and foremost it has to be safe." says Jim Tinker of the American Red Cross.
But a few weeks ago, The Red Cross announced that a blood shortage is likely to happen by early next year. Since then, blood centers are trying to lure potential donors with incentives.
Only five percent of eligible Americans give blood. With some 40,000 pints used every day, a lack of action now will certainly mean a medical crisis in the very near future.
The reason for the drop in donors is difficult to pin down, but officials suggest that apathy, unfounded fear of needles and disease and fewer baby-boomer volunteers may contribute to the shortage. Officials also suggest that younger people are not as willing to donate.
Many young people who are ready to give blood for the first time are being turned away because of their recent body piercings or tattoos.
"Most people if they attempt to do something and they are turned down the first time they aren't going to go back," says body piercer Patrick McCarthy of Columbus, Ohio.
In central Ohio, it is estimated 600 people will be turned away because of their tattoo and body piercings, reports Correspondent Andrea Cambern of CBS News affiliate WBNS-TV in Columbus.
At Iroquois High School in Louisville, Ky., about 20 students who pre-registered for a Red Cross blood drive this year were turned away when they returned from spring break with freshly inked tattoos.
Chris Wood was lining up at Western Hills High School in Frankfort, Ky., to donate blood, when he realized he wasn't eligible because of a tattoo he has.
"It came out of nowhere," Wood said, recalling how tattoos were listed as a disqualifier on the blood donation form.
Some question the need for disqualifying people with tattoos. Sean McNally, a new Western Hills graduate, said the tattoo parlor he patronized during spring break this year in Destin, Fla., was "completely sterile and almost hospital-like."
The loss of potential donors because of tattoos has been palpable if not drastic, blood-center officials said.
Because the restriction lessens the number of available donors nationally, the U.S. surgeon general is looking into its validity, says Tinker.
At the Red Cross in Louisville, Ky., 6 percent of deferrals this year through Jne, 273 people in all, were due to tattoos, piercings and accidental needle sticks, spokeswoman Lisa Brosky said. Most were tattooed, she said.
"Losing 273 doesn't sound like much, except these people could have donated three times" in six months, Brosky said, adding that the actual toll lost probably is higher.
For additional information on blood donations, see the the Web sites of the American Red Cross and the American Association of Blood Banks.