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

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 Kindeyvakkam, 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 $1000 — 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 transport 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 a donor's 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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