BMEzine.com Press Release:
The alleged piercing-related death of a teen in Canada
A seventeen-year-old girl in Newfoundland, Canada (at Booth Memorial High School in St. John’s) arrived at the hospital apparently
suffering from a system-wide infection (“medical problems that were quite complex”). Two days later she died, and the staphylococcus infection that did it is currently being linked to a nipple piercing received some time earlier, even though no evidence of this link has been found yet. Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Simon Avis appears to be implying that the teen deserved what she got and that the Newfoundland government feels that giving pierced people medical care might be a mistake,
An investigation to more conclusively pinpoint piercing as the cause is underway.
Can piercing lead to death and in what circumstances?
It is true that you can get an infection from a piercing that kills you. However, it is also true that you might die from the same type of infection after getting a paper cut — freak accidents do happen, and any minor breach of your skin increases the chances. Piercing jewelry (or sutures in the case of an injury) slightly increase this risk because they give bacteria a place to anchor, but the risk of a fatal infection in body piercing is still less than one in a million. To put that into context (and I will do so in more detail later), a pierced person is significantly more likely to be struck by lightning than to develop a fatal infection from that piercing (and as a point of amusing trivia, there is a case of a pierced woman who was struck by lightning, but was saved from injury by her navel ring which diverted the electrical flow… but I digress).
In addition, if a serious infection does set in, in most cases the infection should be obvious visually around the piercing. Especially in the case of a female nipple piercing, physical symptoms of the infection can be easily seen and felt, so it is very rare for these simple-to-treat infections to progress to something life threatening. The majority of the deaths that have occurred have involved secondary factors such as willful ignorance to recommended aftercare and ongoing complications, or even underlying medical conditions making piercing inadvisable (such as some types of heart defects).
It should also be noted that the bacteria that is usually responsible for these infections lives on everyone’s skin and we come in contact with it daily — while it is theoretically possible to contract an infection at the studio during the initial placement, it is very unusual because all reputable studios have sterility control measures in place. Infections are usually contracted much later, “in the wild”, which is why piercees are given aftercare sheets instructing them on how to minimize these risks.
So yes, it is in extreme cases possible for a piercing to have fatal complications, but it truly requires one-in-a-million bad luck (and usually poor judgement as well), and rarely involves a piercing studio as the cause.
Comparisons and Statistics
According to the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (cpsc.gov), children’s push scooters lead to nearly a hundred thousand hospital visits (mostly fractures) a year, including about twenty deaths. Bicycles add half a million hospital visits and almost a thousand fatalities. The National Athletic Trainer’s Association (nata.org) reports that nearly one in fifty students actually require surgery due to high school sports injuries. The National SAFE KIDS Campaign and the American Academy of Pediatrics point out that three million children fourteen and under are injured at school every year (about one in five). According to a study in Physician and Sportsmedicine, nearly forty students die from immediate injuries sustained during high school sports recreation.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (nhtsa.dot.gov), almost four thousand teenage drivers are killed per year (a quarter of them drunk at the time, but the leading cause is simple driver error). Almost half of these crashes involved other teens in the car, and I haven’t included those death numbers… And of course if you include adults in the statistics, you have about fifty thousand corpses.
Or how about circumcision? According to the British Journal of Surgery, between one in fifty and one in ten circumcisions develop complications, and in the US, as many as two hundred and fifty infants die per year from elective circumcisions. Include adult cosmetic surgery and again you add many thousands more injuries and deaths. Where is the government and medical outrage for all of the injuries and deaths resulting from kids on scooters, circumcisions, needless road trips, and football games?
I can go on and on, but the point is that there are many activities which are recreational and optional in nature that are extremely dangerous for both adults and children that we accept because we have been culturally conditioned to do so. We could make them much more safe, or eliminate them entirely, but we don’t. In order to make rational decisions that respect both a reasonable allocation of political time and money, and also the civil rights of the people affected — while still protecting the public from harm — we have to step back and be objective and fair.
Civil rights issues involved
Dr. Avis’s statement that treating the infections that pierced people occasionally get is a waste of tax money is making the statement that pierced people do not deserve the same rights under the law as other Canadians. Dr. Avis is lucky that he’s in Newfoundland rather than Ontario, because if he made that statement in Ontario, he could find himself on the end of a Human Rights lawsuit — I believe his statement is a low-grade hate crime, and certainly very inappropriate for a government official to make.
In general people get piercings because they like them, and because it’s a cultural element of the group they are affiliated with. The Ontario Human Rights Commission points out that “minority group” goes beyond genetic race, and includes “specific traits and attributes, which are connected in some way to racialized people and are deemed to be ‘abnormal’ and of less worth [than the mainstream’s]”, and that these traits include clothing, grooming, leisure, and so on. They go on to warn that government policies and activities include subtle but systematic discrimination, just like we’re seeing in this case.
It is also important to point out that as Canadians we enjoy not just freedom of speech and religion, but literally freedom of expression, which includes the right to be a pierced and tattooed person should you desire it. So not only are the statements (and actions in first demonizing the piercing) of Dr. Avis potentially hate crimes, they are also veiled violations of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (Constitution Act, 1982).
It should go without saying that the freak death of this student is a tragic event that we all wish never happened. But, the truth is that freak accidents do happen all the time, and all we can do is mourn and move on, and be reminded that even though piercing seems safe we always need to stay focused on cleanliness and health both during and after the piercing. Put in context, realizing that these deaths are extremely rare underscores the fact that body piercing is actually incredibly safe, and of all the activities a teen could choose for themselves, is one of the ones we need to worry about least of all.
What is disturbing is the discriminatory response and official commentary. Because this case involves body piercing, an activity that is loved by perhaps one in ten Canadians but not really understood by the rest, the involvement seems to immediately call out the angry pitch-fork wielding crowd seeking to find a monster to scapegoat… all the while forgetting the fact that they ignore (and permit) the risks of radically more dangerous (and also avoidable) activities.
In conclusion, please understand that while deaths can happen from piercing, they can happen from most activities, and looking at things objectively, piercing is one of the safest activities a person can undertake. As Canadians, we have the legal right to do so, and the right to have our government and health services support us. It is my sincere hope that I am misinterpreting Dr. Avis’s statements or that he has been misquoted. As a Canadian, I feel very strongly that it is the responsibiltiy of a government official to work hard to protect all Canadians, even those whose mode of expression and culture they do not understand, or perhaps even find personally repugnant or nonsensical.
I just hope Dr. Avis and the Government of Canada agree.