Piercing on the boardwalk

Health: The explosive growth of outlets in Ocean City is raising concerns about industry.

June 22, 2000|By Diana K. Sugg and Chris Guy | Diana K. Sugg and Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

For the swarms of teen-agers hitting the Ocean City boardwalk this month, getting a nose, navel or tongue pierced has never been easier. As other East Coast resorts have restricted body-piercing businesses over the past few years, many operations have moved into this beach town, driving up the number from a handful to more than 20.

The explosive growth is raising concerns among authorities about the industry, from underage piercing to sanitary conditions and medical complications.

Popping up in the back of T-shirt and music stores, the businesses can open without notifying anyone. And the people piercing genitals, lips and other spots don't have to be licensed and often have only five days' training.

"The scary thing is, you can have a shop that comes down here for two weekends, and they're gone. They could do hundreds of people," said Ed Potetz, the environmental health director for the Worcester County Health Department.

Last week, the department filed charges against a woman for piercing three 16-year-old boys who claimed to be 18, and Potetz said he came across a body-piercing business where workers were not sterilizing equipment or disposing properly of medical waste.

The operation, in Palace Beachwear on the boardwalk, also lacked hand-washing facilities and kept poor records, he said. State law requires anyone younger than 18 to have parental consent and body piercing businesses to follow standard infection control measures.

Palace Beachwear's manager, Billy Suchting, maintains that the operation was sterile, clean and "top of the line." But Potetz believed the place "posed a great risk" and closed it down.

Besides the danger of acquiring such viruses as HIV and hepatitis B and C, which may not surface for years, body-piercing customers may suffer from chronic infections, persistent pain, scarring and, with tongue piercing, cracked teeth and other dental complications. In the past few months, Ocean City area hospitals and urgent-care centers have reported six or seven cases, mostly of profuse bleeding involving the eye, ear and tongue.

Veteran piercers say they see people with minor medical problems that are related to poor equipment, low-quality jewelry or improper wound care by the customer. Also, piercers make mistakes. Their formal training is often confined to a five-day, $1,000 seminar in New York.

"A girl just came in here with an eyebrow bruised and bleeding. She said she didn't want to go back to the guy who did it because he was dirty," said Chris Hoffman, 26, who works at Shock Value, one of the older piercing businesses. "She went there because it was cheap."

A few piercers have apprenticed for two years under experienced technicians and want more regulation. Some proposed new rules to the City Council last year.

"If you don't know what you're doing, you can really damage somebody," says Aileen Quirus, a registered nurse who pierces at Boom Body Piercing.

Body piercing is a centuries-old practice that has exploded in popularity in the past several years. In Maryland, the number of tattoo shops - 85 percent of which do body piercing - has grown from a about a half-dozen five years ago to more than 150, according to a state professional group. Other states are posting similar numbers.

High school graduates celebrating senior week in Ocean City this month are lining up 15 deep to get pierced. Some say they're doing it for fun, or because they like the way it looks, or because they're 18 and their parents can't say no. Others go under the needle because their friends are.

Libby Treese, 18, an Elkton High School graduate, had her navel re-pierced this week. After rejecting one establishment because of safety concerns, she quickly found another and was impressed with how clean the place looked and how the technician pulled needles from a sealed bag.

Treese talked best friend Dawn Montgomery, 18, into getting one, too. They paid $47.25 each.

"She didn't want to get it done by herself, so I thought I'd be a nice friend and get it done," Montgomery said. "She wanted me to come out of my shell a little bit."

Ryan Bender, 17, decided to get his tongue pierced on the boardwalk one late night a few weeks ago after he found out another classmate from Howard County's Glenelg High School was doing it. "I was kind of scared," he said. "But I knew if he could withstand it, I could."

Adam Baker likes the look. When he turned 18, the Pittsburgh youth got his eyebrow, upper ear, tongue and left nipple pierced. This week, he plans to get two more done on his ears.

Michael Riley, 21, of Ocean Pines got his 16th piercing the other night, a bar across the bridge of his nose. He got his first at age 8.

"Ever since then, I was almost, like, addicted to it," Riley said. "I like the pain. It reminds you that you're not invincible."

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