Bustling export trade in dead Americans unknown to many of their relatives

by WorldTribune Staff, February 11, 2018

Americans who donate their loved ones’ bodies to science may not be fully aware that companies are exporting parts of the bodies for profit worldwide, a report said.

So-called “body brokers” are exporting heads, shoulders, knees, and other body parts across the world, Reuters reported on Feb. 8.

The FBI last year raided the warehouse of Detroit-based International Biological Inc.

A Hong Kong flagged cargo ship departed South Carolina in July carrying 6,000 pounds of human remains valued at $67,204, the report said, adding that relatives of the dead did not realize the remains were being dismembered and sent to Europe and elsewhere.

Marie Gallegos, whose husband’s head was sent to a dental school in Israel months after he died of a heart attack, told reporters that she “should have read the fine print” of the forms she signed allowing his parts to be donated for science and research.

“Had I known that my husband’s head was over there, I would have waited to have the ceremony,” she said. “If they really wanted my husband’s body for these purposes, they should have told me upfront and verbally.”

While it is illegal to profit from the sale of organs destined for transplant, it is legal in most U.S. states to sell donated whole bodies or their dissected parts, such as arms and heads, for medical research, training and education, Reuters reported in November.

“There are people who wouldn’t necessarily mind where the specimens were sent if they were fully informed,” said Brandi Schmitt, who directs a body donation system at the University of California. “But clearly there are plenty of donors that do mind and that don’t feel like they’re getting enough information.”

The FBI in November raided one of the brokers, Oregon-based MedCure.

According to Reuters: “MedCure is among the largest brokers of cadavers and body parts in the United States. From 2011 through 2015, documents obtained under public-record laws show, the company received more than 11,000 donated bodies and distributed more than 51,000 body parts to medical industry customers nationally. In a current brochure, the company says that 80,000 additional people have pledged to donate their bodies to MedCure when they die.”

The company’s lawyer, Jeffrey Edelson, declined to comment on the nature of the FBI raid, but said “MedCure is committed to meeting and exceeding the highest standards in the industry. It takes very seriously its obligation to not only deliver safe specimens securely, but to do it in a way that respects the donors.”

Matthew Zahn, chairman of the public health committee for the Infectious Diseases Society of America, said there is a concern the exported body parts might be infected with HIV or some other highly infectious disease.

“It’s a situation where we don’t have a huge amount of regulation or clarity as to what the risks are,” Zahn said. “It feels like one of those cracks in the system where a practice has developed, and the risk factors and oversight have not fully matured.”

Last year, the FBI raided the warehouse of Detroit-based International Biological Inc. (IBI) and, court documents show, found the warehouse littered with dead flies and human remains frozen together in huge “chunks.”

The owner of the business, Arthur Rathburn, was later found guilty of fraud for supplying his customers with body parts infected with HIV and hepatitis.

“The fraud scheme orchestrated by IBI shocked even the most experienced of our investigative team,” FBI special-agent-in-charge David Gelios told reporters. Donors were “victimized as IBI intentionally and recklessly marketed and transported contaminated human remains… Personal greed overcame decency.”

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