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'Body Brokers' Profit From Donated Human Remains

By P.J.L Laurens (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

When you donate your body to science, you probably expect it to be used for research.

And it is, for the most part.

But not before being acquired and sold — for a profit — by so-called “body brokers.”

A new investigative series from Reuters news service looks into this largely unregulated, sometimes unethical industry.

Only four states regulate body brokering, and Nevada is not one of them, though some of the most egregious offenses were found here.

“Body brokers are the people who are not universities but they are for-profit corporations that take body donations and then dissect the parts and distribute them to medical users,” reporter John Shiffman told KNPR's State of Nevada. Shiffman, with Brian Grow, co-wrote the investigative series.

If someone donates his or her body to science and research doesn't designate a specific university, then a body broker will buy it, test it for diseases, put it in freezer storage and then find a medical school who needs it.

“If they’re going to train podiatrists, they would order say 15 feet and the broker would supply them,” Shiffman said.

The problem is the industry is largely unregulated, which means there have been some outrageous cases uncovered by Shiffman and Grow.

One of the most outrageous was in Las Vegas. Workers at an office building complained several times to management, police and the health district about odd smells and bloody boxes in the dumpster.

"When the health department officials responded, they found a man dressed in medical scrubs but he was thawing a torso – a very large one, dismembered – in the Nevada sun with a garden hose. And all of the waste was running out of the building,” Shiffman said.

The health department also found moldy body parts and mismatched donation records in the body broker's office. Despite all that, nothing could really be done because the broker didn't break any laws.

An employee was fined for the incident, but it was an environmental fine because he let human waste flow into the gutters.

Shiffman said transplants are highly regulated and it wouldn't take much to re-write those laws to better regulate the industry.

“It is really just an organization and an industry that’s been under the radar for so long, maybe 20 to 25 years," he said.

He said the federal government had a chance to regulate the industry but didn't, and now it is just done state by state. 

In addition to very few regulations, people who donate their whole bodies often don't realize what could happen and their families don't get much money while brokers can make millions.

“They had no idea that someone else was going to be making money off of their gift which they thought was an altruistic thing,” he said.

It is not just an altruistic thing. Some people choose whole body donation because they don't have the money for a funeral or cremation. Funeral homes will suggest it as an inexpensive option for people and then collect fees from body brokers. 

John Shiffman, reporter, Reuters

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Kristy Totten is a producer at KNPR's State of Nevada. Previously she was a staff writer at Las Vegas Weekly, and has covered technology, education and economic development for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. She's a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism.