Blood, Bones And Organs: The Gruesome 'Red Market'

Originally published on July 14, 2011 7:34 pm

Journalist Scott Carney figures he's worth about $250,000, but that number isn't based on his savings or his assets; it's what Carney thinks his body would fetch if it were broken down into individual parts and sold on what he calls the "red market."

In his new book, also called The Red Market, Carney explores the shadowy but lucrative global marketplace for blood, bones and organs. He tells NPR's Melissa Block that despite being underground, there's no question the red market is thriving.

"It's really hard to get accurate figures on what the illegal market is on body parts, but I'm figuring it's definitely in the billions of dollars," Carney says.

'When You're At Your Most Desperate Place ... The Brokers Come In'

As part of his research, Carney visited an Indian refugee camp for survivors of 2004's massive tsunami. Today, the camp is known by the nickname Kidneyvakkam, or Kidneyville, because of how common it is for the women who live there to sell their kidneys.

"The women are just lined up," Carney says. "They have their exposed midriffs and there are all these kidney extraction scars because when the tsunami happened, all these organ brokers came in and realized there were a lot of people in very desperate situations and they could turn a lot of quick cash by just convincing people to sell their kidneys."

The buying and selling of organs is against the law in almost every country, but Carney says the market has managed to grow thanks to the dire situations many of its donors find themselves in.

"When you're at your most desperate place is when the brokers come in," Carney says. "One of these women, her name was Rani, gave up a kidney because her daughter had actually tried to commit suicide because she was in a very difficult marriage ... In order to treat her, the hospital needed a certain amount of cash — I think it was about $1,000 — and [Rani] didn't have any money so she did the only thing she could, which was to sell her kidney because an organ broker just sort of approached her very quickly. And that's a pretty common situation. "

The Black Gold Market

In his book, Carney also delves into the marketplace for human hair, known as "black gold."

"It is amazingly valuable," he says. "The market is about $900 million around the world, and about 40 percent of [that] hair is sold for human extensions."

Many of those transactions take place at the Sri Tirumala Temple in southern India, where people give their hair to the god Vishnu as an act of humility.

"I went there about two years ago and had my head shaved with probably about 1,000 other people," Carney says. "These women came, swept up the hair and threw it into these giant steel vats. [The hair] eventually gets combed and sorted and sold at an auction, and shipped out to the international market."

Hair collected in a single cut from a person's head, known as "remy," is used all over the world for hair extensions. But the shorter hair, often shorn from men, serves a very different purpose.

"Most of the hair that gets shorn is from men," Carney says. "That gets sold to chemical companies and gets reduced to an amino acid called L-cystine, which is used as a leavening agent in baking goods."

The Body As Commodity

In his book, Carney argues that part of what makes red market transactions ethically troubling is the role different social classes play in the whole operation.

"One of the very foundational concepts of the book is when people, say, give an organ ... it's always going to a richer person and, oftentimes, it's going to a person in another country," Carney says. "It's reduced to commerce so quickly."

He says if he had his way, every bag of blood, organ transplant and egg donation would be tagged with the donor's name.

"We have to look at the beginning of the supply chain," Carney says. "We have to be sure we're getting these things ethically and not just assume that we're being ethical."

And while revoking donors' right to anonymity could mean they don't donate at all, Carney says we also need to consider the alternative.

"You will see donations plummet," he says. "But on the other hand, if you were allowing crimes on the magnitude of literally whole villages selling their kidneys, who are we protecting?"

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

Journalist Scott Carney has done the math and figures he's worth about $250,000. That figure is not based on Carney's savings or his assets. Instead, that quarter million dollars is what Carney figures his body would fetch if it were broken down into individual parts and sold on what he calls the red market.

And that's the title of his new book in which he explores the shadowy and lucrative global marketplace for organs, bones and blood.

Scott Carney joins me now.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. SCOTT CARNEY (Author, "The Red Market: On the Trail of the World's Organ Brokers, Bone Thieves, Blood Farmers, and Child Traffickers"): Thanks for having me, Melissa.

BLOCK: And, Scott, you called this marketplace the flesh bazaar. How big an industry has this become?

Mr. CARNEY: Well, it's really hard to get accurate figures on what the illegal market is on body parts, but I'm figuring it's definitely in the billions of dollars that are moving hands as we look at all the industries that buy and sell bodies, everything from blood to kidneys to hair to corneas. I mean, it's a really large business that not many people know about.

BLOCK: I want to ask you about one of the places that you visited for your book. It's a refugee camp in India set up for survivors of the massive 2004 tsunami, and so many women there, you say, have sold one of their kidneys that the camp has become known as Kidneyville.

Mr. CARNEY: Right. Or Kidneyvakkam in Tamil. Yeah. It was really surprising to me to go to this village where there are probably 800 or a thousand people living there, and when these women just lined up, and you could see in their saris, they have their exposed midriffs, and there are all these kidney extraction scars. Because when the tsunami happened, these organ brokers came in and realized that there were a lot of people in very desperate situations, and they could turn a lot of quick cash by just convincing these people to sell their kidneys.

BLOCK: These women, of course, are paid much more, I imagine, than they could make otherwise. Is there anything illegal about what's going on there?

Mr. CARNEY: Oh, it's completely against the law to buy and sell a kidney in almost every country in the world. The standard that we are supposed to use is donation and altruism. We're supposed to give this - not make it a market for flesh. We're supposed to do it where you just do it because of this feeling of goodwill, but that's not what actually happens in a lot of the world. Market drives it, and the body quickly gets reduced to a commodity.

BLOCK: What did these women in Kidneyville tell you about why they decided to give up one of their kidneys, and what happened when they went through that procedure?

Mr. CARNEY: Well, they all gave up for money. I mean, it was a straight commercial transaction for them, and it's usually because they were in a very, very desperate situation.

One of these women, her name was Rani, gave up a kidney because her daughter had actually tried to commit suicide because she was in a very difficult marriage. And she consumed some sort of pesticide and was taken to the hospital, and in order to treat her, the hospital needed a certain amount of cash. It was - I think it was about a thousand dollars. And she didn't have any money, and so she did the only thing she could, which was sell her kidney, because an organ broker just sort of approached her very quickly. And that's a pretty common situation. You know, when you're at your most desperate place is when the brokers come in.

BLOCK: Part of what you say is ethically troublesome about these transactions is that the red market, as you call it, is moving flesh upward but never downward through social classes.

Mr. CARNEY: Right. And this is one of the very foundational concepts of the book is that when people, say, give an organ or when someone sells one of their eggs, it's never going to somebody sort of a similar economic background. It's always going to a richer person. And oftentimes, it's going to a person in another country. It gets reduced to this commerce so quickly and so easily. And the benefits never really come back.

And when you're selling a piece of your tissue, all the studies that have been conducted on this over the last 20 years say that there's no real long-lasting economic benefit to these people who give up their flesh.

BLOCK: And you say that if you had your way, every bag of blood would be tagged with the donor's name, same with every organ for transplant, every egg donation. The counterargument to that, though, would be that the anonymity protects the donor. If you do away with privacy, you're going to see donations plummet, and health will suffer.

Mr. CARNEY: You will see donations plummet. I think one great example of that is what happened in the United Kingdom where they saw all sorts of violations going on with IVF and with egg donation, coercion, because of payments to donors and things that they opened up the records. Now anyone can track a record for an egg donor in the U.K. And you did see donation levels plummet, and I think that is, in some ways, quite bad.

But, on the other hand, if you were allowing crimes of the magnitude of people - literally whole villages - selling their kidneys, who are we protecting? Are we protecting the recipient and the rights of the consumer of these organs? Are we protecting the supply chain in the very beginning of it? My argument in the book, we have to look at the beginning of the supply chain. We have to be sure that we're getting these things ethically and not just assume that we're being ethical.

BLOCK: Scott, I want to end by asking you about another fascinating and lucrative human commodity that's not a grisly one. It's something called black gold. What's black gold?

Mr. CARNEY: Black gold is human hair, and it is amazingly valuable. The market is about $900 million around the world, and about 40 percent of the hair that's sold for human extensions and that sort of thing comes from a temple in south India called the Venkateswara Temple at Tirupati. And what this is is people give their hair to the god Venkateswara as an act of humility or, occasionally, if a family member dies, he'll give a sort of a boon to this god.

And so I went there about two years ago and had my head shaved with, you know, probably about a thousand other people. And these women came and swept up the hair and threw it into these giant steel vats that, you know, eventually filled up in the course of a day or two.

The vats were maybe 10 feet tall, and they just, you know, filled of human hair. And this eventually gets combed and sorted and sold at an auction and shipped out to the international market.

BLOCK: And where would it end up?

Mr. CARNEY: Well, it goes all over the world. There's two different types. There's remy which is a hair which is collected in a single cut and is from one single person's head, and there's non-remy which is just sort of assorted hair. Most of it get sent to the United States and Europe, often to black beauty parlors and - but it's also, you know, widely popular in Africa and Asia and really all over the world.

BLOCK: So you lined up and got your head shaved too?

Mr. CARNEY: I did. I did. I was bald as a cue ball at the end of it.

BLOCK: And who knows where your hair ended up?

Mr. CARNEY: Well, that's interesting. I have a guess. If the hair is not long enough for an extension - I had, you know, I had pretty short hair, and most of the hair that gets shorn is from men, that gets sold to chemical companies and reduced to an amino acid called L-cystine, which is used as a leavening agent in baking goods. So maybe it's in a doughnut that you're eating. I don't know.

BLOCK: I will not think about baked goods quite the same way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CARNEY: No. I don't think I will either.

BLOCK: Scott Carney, his book is "The Red Market: On the Trail of the World's Organ Brokers, Bone Thieves, Blood Farmers, and Child Traffickers."

Scott, thanks so much.

Mr. CARNEY: Thanks for having me, Melissa. I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.