This article is from Issue 55: Jan/Feb 2012

The Flesh Trade

How you keep blood factories, bone snatchers and baby peddlers in business.

There’s a multibillion-dollar, worldwide market for blood, bones and everything in between. And a haunting economic reality fuses the United States straight to its core.

Hindu pilgrims shave their scalps as a sign of devotion, and temple employees sell truckloads of hair to cosmetics companies and chemical factories. Those factories turn that hair into plant fertilizer and additives for baked goods. Which means, every time an average American buys an average bran muffin mix from an average grocery story, there's a chance he or she is a cannibal.

People leach blood from prisoners locked in their backyards; they dig up bodies and sell the bones, and they kidnap babies for a profit.
This story should be disturbing.

The white market legally trades iPhones and milk, and the black market illegally trades crack cocaine and dirty bombs. The red market deals in human flesh—attached or dismembered, living or dead, whole or in shreds. When it comes to cash flow, human bodies move units like Starbucks coffee and the stock market. Like anything, the flesh trade boils down to supply and demand.

One of the people shining a light on the human flesh trade is Scott Carney, author of The Red Market: On the Trail of the World’s Organ Brokers, Bone Thieves, Blood Farmers, and Child Traffickers. Carney—whose name eerily recalls the Latin word for “flesh”—knows more about the organ market than almost anyone, save the people who buy and sell daily. “I weigh just a little under 200 pounds, have brown hair, blue eyes and a full set of teeth,” he explains. “At 6-feet, 2-inches, I have long femurs and tibias with solid connective tissue. Both of my kidneys function properly, and my heart runs at a steady clip of 70 beats per minute. All in, I figure I’m worth about $250,000.”

Demand is high. Burn victims need skin grafts; dialysis patients need kidneys; and chronic smokers need lungs. Modern medicine works ever-increasing miracles, so—as long as humans remain mortal—the demand for body parts will rise.

If the world economy continues to scratch and writhe, the supply will rise, too. What if you need a blood transfusion? A bone graft? What if you need a new kidney and have a few thousand dollars to spare? Someone, somewhere, needs that money more than a kidney.

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