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by Janine DeFao, Bee Staff Writer

The Sacramento Bee, 2 July 1995

The warning sounds authoritative and certainly frightening: LSD-laced tattoos are being sold to schoolchildren. Some are laced with strychnine, and the drugs can be absorbed simply by touch.

"This is very serious - young lives have already been taken. This is growing faster than we can warn parents and professionals," it concludes.

So when the warning showed up as an electronic mail message to UC Davis Medical Center employees recently, a well-meaning secretary - and concerned parent - faxed the information to the city schools.

When Sacramento City Unified School District spokesman George Medovoy received the official-looking fax, complete with a medical center cover sheet, he in turn passed the warning on to school principals.

The e-mail message reached other area hospitals, including Kaiser, some county employees and all city managers. Fliers marked with skulls and the same information were distributed at an Elk Grove bowling alley.

There was just one problem with the swift and efficient distribution of the seemingly important warning: It's simply not true.

The LSD-tattoo story has long been recognized as an urban legend by folklorists, one of whom has traced it back to a 1980 New Jersey State Police bulletin and perhaps as far back as a similar story circulated in England in the 1840s.

But to average citizens, the warning sounds plausible - and critical enough to pass on without bothering to check the source of the information. And while it's nothing new for rumors to make their way through the grapevine, current technology means stories spread farther and faster.

In this case, the warning says it came from a J. O'Donnel at the Outpatient Chemical Dependency Treatment Service at Danbury Hospital in Connecticut.

J. O'Donnel, however, "is not a past or current patient or employee," said Dennis Van Zilen, the Danbury Hospital spokesman who has been plagued by calls about the "blue-star tattoo" warning for more than three years.

In the version connected to Danbury Hospital now circulating in Sacramento, the transfer-type "tattoos" are the size of a pencil eraser and have a design of a blue star, Superman, Mickey Mouse, clowns, Disney characters, Bart Simpson or butterflies.

"Somehow our name got on there and from that point on, it got out of control," Van Zilen said. Three years ago, the rumor seemed confined to fliers in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey, but it eventually spread through the Midwest to the West Coast, he said.

Van Zilen has even received calls from as far away as a U.S. Army base in Germany, and has been told the warning was distributed by e-mail to all IBM employees.

He now averages one or two blue-star tattoo calls a week, but at its peak, about 13/4 years ago, Van Zilen said he answered as many as 30 calls a week.

That's about when Sacramento police spokesman Michael Heenan said he first saw the "same exact warning, same everything."

But both then and now, there has been absolutely no evidence that such tattoos are being distributed.

In addition, experts say LSD - lysergic acid diethylamide - is not addictive (debunking the notion of pushers trying to get children hooked), nor is it lethal. It is also unlikely that the hallucinogen could be absorbed through the skin except over very long contact, said Sacramento Police Narcotics Detective Dave Cropp.

"I had lunch with a friend of mine who's a special education teacher who is scared to death," Cropp said. But "there's no need to have a panic campaign around here."

However, LSD reportedly is making a comeback, both nationally and locally. And it is typically sold as "blotter acid" on paper that is perforated into small squares with designs including those named in the rumor.

Folklorists say such grains of truth are often enough to keep an urban legend going.

Urban myths "are perfect reflectors of whatever anxiety we're experiencing in society - in this case, drugs," said folklorist Russell Frank of Sonora, who teaches part-time at the University of California, Davis.

"They're circulated among people who haven't heard them debunked in the past," Frank said.

Sacramento schools spokesman Medovoy was one of those people.

After receiving the fax from UC Davis Medical Center, Medovoy said he believed that "obviously, (the tattoos) pose a threat to young people. If we can use our own communications to alert them to it, we'll do it. It's better to put it out than be sorry."

Concerned parents and professionals with the same attitude apparently are responsible for keeping the LSD-tattoo legend alive at least since the early 1980s, when warnings circulated on photocopies. In a 1984 book on urban legends, renowned folklorist Jan Brunvand traced the story of "Mickey Mouse Acid" - essentially the same rumor - to a 1980 New Jersey State Police bulletin on blotter acid which warned: "Children may be susceptible to this type of cartoon stamp believing it to be a tattoo transfer."

And Brunvand goes much further back, linking the story to one circulated in 1840 in England that those licking contaminated postage stamps could contract cholera.

"The fact that items of folklore are widespread in the world is not unusual at all. Folklorists have always been astounded by the spread of such stories," Frank said.

"It's increasing the speed of the spread. . . . Things are just whipping around really fast," Frank said. "This stuff never really seems to go away. It's just that the form and the speed with which it's transmitted has changed."

While newspaper stories and other articles debunking the tattoo myth have appeared on Internet news groups, the rumor itself can be circulated just as easily.

"That was my biggest fear, that it was going to end up on the Internet, because now it's out of control," said Danbury Hospital spokesman Van Zilen. "It's all over the world."

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