An eight-month international investigation has revealed that human tissue has been lifted, pulled and scraped from the dead without consent and used in surgical procedures in the West.
The four-part series ‘Skin and Bone: The Shadowy Trade in Human Body Parts’ is a detailed investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICJC) across 11 countries.
The myriad findings, reported by the ICJC and by its partner news organisations in the USA, Ukraine, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, are based on hundreds of interviews, thousands of court documents, government records and the diligent scrutiny of available tissue registries, some stretching back 10 years.
The investigations revealed a growing trade in human body parts, sometimes without the knowledge of the deceased’s family and often without systematic verification of the tissue’s origins or its health.
The most egregious examples of non-consensual tissue harvesting occurred in the Ukraine, a country home to at least 25 morgues registered with the American Food and Drug Administration, responsible for vetting tissue implants.
The parents of one Ukrainian teenager who had committed suicide by hanging discovered on the day of his funeral that tissue had been taken from his wrists.
The dead, it seems, have in some cases been stripped of body parts that can be reused for surgical procedures including breast enhancements, spinal reconstructions and post-burn skin grafts.
It is a global industry: the Slovakian newspaper, The Daily Slovakia, an investigation co-researcher, found that parts of its deceased citizens could be found in Germany, South Korea, the USA, Mexico and more than 30 other countries.
The USA is the biggest market for and supplier of human tissue. More than 2,500 companies use human tissue-based implants and annual turnovers can be as high as $400m.
Broken down into its sellable parts, a body can be worth up to $200,000.
Since 2002 the American Food and Drug Administration reported at least 1,352 infections and 40 related deaths in the US following human tissue transplants, according to an ICIJ analysis of FDA data.
‘We are more careful with fruit and vegetables than with body parts,’ said Dr. Martin Zizi, an interviewed professor of neurophysiology in Belgium.
Not confined to the grimy morgues of Eastern Europe, interviews with former American tissue traders currently in jail reveal a practice of prowling poorer areas in Las Vegas to find young deceased Americans with intact bones and tissue.
‘It’s harder to sell a hot dog on the street than it was to recover transplant tissue,’ recalls one former tissue trader who is serving eight years in jail for fraud, including selling hepatitis-infected tissue.
While the majority of domestic laws prohibit the buying or selling of human tissue, provisions do allow for the finding, storing and processing.
The rapacity of the tissue graft industry is compounded by weak oversight, the investigation claims.
‘We have barcodes for our [breakfast] cereals, but we don’t have barcodes for our human tissues,’ one interviewee told investigators.
‘Every patient who has tissue implanted should know. It’s so obvious. It should be a basic patient right. It is not. That’s ridiculous.’