The number of people having their navels, eyebrows and other body parts pierced has soared in recent years.

Once reserved for the young and rebellious, the practice has been adopted by trendy teens everywhere and even professionals are sporting studs and rings in various parts of their anatomy.

In the USA, which seems to dictate British trends, the number of women having their bodies pierced quadrupled between 1960 and 1980, and there is every indication that the fashion is increasing in popularity.

But 35-year-old Dr Jennifer Higham, a medical microbiologist who became interested in piercing through her involvement with the Health and Safety Executive, says it carries serious risks.

"Body piercers are doing a surgical procedure but they don't have the background training," she says.

"You have people going in off the street and expecting things will be all right but there is documented literature that states one practitioner infected 30 people with Hepatitis B over two months."

One survey of GPs found that up to 50 per cent of people who had had piercings later needed medical attention and 95 per cent of the GPs had seen patients with complications following piercings.

Dr Higham reels off potential adverse effects ranging from warts to serious infections such as HIV, Hepatitis B and C, toxic shock syndrome, liver cirrhosis and herpes.

While premises offering ear piercing can be monitored by local authorities under the Local Government Miscellaneous Provisions Act, this does not cover body piercing.

Practitioners themselves have some protection under the Health and Safety at Work Act but businesses carrying out body piercing exclusively can escape vetting.

This legal loophole worries Dr Higham. "The lack of legislation concerns me greatly. At some point, I do believe there will be legislation that covers this because the numbers of piercings is rising but, unfortunately, the way the law is at the moment, it doesn't cover many of the places where body piercing is carried out."

According to Dr Higham, many practitioners operate dangerously out of ignorance rather than ill intent.

A request by a company that wanted to avoid this prompted her to devise tailor-made safety guidelines. These covered everything from which needles should be used to who should be allowed to have a piercing.

But Dr Higham was still not satisfied that staff and customers' safety would be assured.

"I didn't feel it was adequate that they operated blindly so I offered them a training course," she says. By doing that, they gained an understanding of the reasons why the procedures were in place."

Over several sessions, Dr Higham taught every member of staff involved in body piercing microbiology basics that were relevant to their job.

By the end of the course, the company was confident it was operating under the safest and most hygienic circumstances possible.

Dr Higham is hopeful other body piercing practitioners might follow its lead and seek professional advice.

"A lot of piercers go for piercing training by someone very experienced but they usually don't get training on infection control," she says.

Humanity's time-honoured obsession with adorning itself with rings and studs convinces Dr Higham the practice will endure.

And despite the risks, she is not against it. "What we are doing these days is just absorbing ancient ways back into our culture but for different reasons. There is nothing wrong with it, as long as it is done in a safe manner."

Dr Higham recommends anyone who wants to get pierced should find out how equipment is sterilised and what safety guarantees are given.

"It would become immediately obvious with a few simple questions if the piercer knows what they are doing," she says.

But she acknowledges that until the law recognises body piercing for the risky procedure it is, people will continue to entrust their health to those ill qualified to protect it.