A Violet Tale

By Elias Rodriguez

During Children’s Health Month, I’d like to share a cautionary tale about a mother’s good intentions. Growing up in New York City’s Lower East Side, one of my childhood memories is the ubiquitous use of a home remedy applied by my mother. This apparently magical medicinal concoction was known to me and my six siblings simply as “tinta violeta” or violet tint.  It was, Mom said, a medicine used by her mother and grandmother as a topical panacea for almost any ailment on the outside of the body.

Tinta violeta was a staple in many Puerto Rican medicine cabinets. Housed in a tiny glass bottle with a dropper, it added an interesting dimension to our heritage. Mom swore by tinta violeta. What was the solution for the scratch I got at the playground? Dab on some tinta violeta. Was that mosquito bite itching? Apply a dot of tinta violeta. When I suffered from a scab due to slip and fall…Quick… Add a drop of tinta violeta to avoid an infection. It seemed like tinta violeta’s deep violet stains were all over my skin at one point or another. The liquid appeared to be a quick, low cost remedy for just about every bite, scratch, itch, rash or other external malady.

What is in tinta violeta? I had not the foggiest idea. When, if ever, is it appropriate to use tinta violeta? In what amounts should tinta violeta be applied? Was it tested by the FDA?  This tiny tot wasn’t worried about any of those concerns. The only downside I could tell was that the deep dark spots made me look like a character out of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.  Parents, on the other hand, have a responsibility to do as the EPA has recommended for years: KEEP YOUR CHILDREN SAFE. READ THE LABEL FIRST!

My siblings and I were not the only ones to get the treatment. One day our beloved family dog came down with a nasty rash that caused much of his hair to fall off. We could not afford a veterinarian’s visit, so Mom handled the consultation herself. It took a few weeks, but our German Shepherd was totally cured and back to normal eventually – The prescription from Dr. Mom? Tinta violeta had done it again!

My saint of a mother, now 83-years-old, says that she always knew that tinta violeta was potentially toxic, which explains why she only administered it in small amounts and kept it far from reach. That was smart, but I wonder how many parents continue to use remedies that they inherited from others and know little about. Should my parents have known that tinta violeta is a powerful dye that has been found to cause cancer in mice? We now know that even traditional medicines can contain chemicals that can harm your health. Never administer any remedy without careful consideration of the source and its potential health effects.

About the Author: Elias serves as EPA Region 2’s bilingual public information officer. Prior to joining EPA, the proud Nuyorican worked at Time Inc. conducting research for TIME, LIFE, FORTUNE and PEOPLE magazines. He is a graduate of Hunter College, Baruch College and the Theological Institute of the Assembly of Christian Churches in NYC.