Ian Cobain and Adam Luck
September 13, 2005
A Chinese cosmetics company is using skin harvested from the corpses of executed convicts to develop beauty products for sale in Europe, an investigation by the Guardian has discovered.
Agents for the firm have told would-be customers it is developing collagen for lip and wrinkle treatments from skin taken from prisoners after they have been shot. The agents say some of the company’s products have been exported to the UK, and that the use of skin from condemned convicts is “traditional” and nothing to “make such a big fuss about”.
With European regulations to control cosmetic treatments such as collagen not expected for several years, doctors and politicians say the discovery highlights the dangers faced by the increasing number of Britons seeking to improve their looks. Apart from the ethical concerns, there is also the potential risk of infection.
MPs on the Commons select health committee are to examine the regulatory system and may launch an investigation and question ministers about the need for immediate new controls. “I am sure that the committee will want to look at this,” said Kevin Barron, its Labour chairman. “This is something everyone in society will be very concerned about.”
Plastic surgeons are also concerned about the delay in introducing regulations to control the cosmetic treatments industry. Norman Waterhouse, a former president of the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons, said: “I am surprised that we are taking the lead from the European commission, because this is bound to delay action on this important area which is increasingly a matter for concern. It seems like a bit of a cop out to me.”
It is unclear whether any of the “aesthetic fillers” such as collagen available in the UK or on the internet are supplied by the company, which cannot be identified for legal reasons. It is also unclear whether collagen made from prisoners’ skin is in the research stage or is in production. However, the Guardian has learned that the company has exported collagen products to the UK in the past. An agent told customers it had also exported to the US and European countries, and that it was trying to develop fillers using tissue from aborted foetuses.
When formally approached by the Guardian, the agent denied the company was using skin harvested from executed prisoners. However, he had already admitted it was doing precisely this during a number of conversations with a researcher posing as a Hong Kong businessman. The Press Complaints Commission’s code of practice permits subterfuge if there is no other means of investigating a matter of public interest.
The agent told the researcher: “A lot of the research is still carried out in the traditional manner using skin from the executed prisoner and aborted foetus.” This material, he said, was being bought from “bio tech” companies based in the northern province of Heilongjiang, and was being developed elsewhere in China.
He suggested that the use of skin and other tissues harvested from executed prisoners was not uncommon. “In China it is considered very normal and I was very shocked that western countries can make such a big fuss about this,” he said. Speaking from his office in northern China, he added: “The government has put some pressure on all the medical facilities to keep this type of work in low profile.”
The agent said his company exported to the west via Hong Kong.”We are still in the early days of selling these products, and clients from abroad are quite surprised that China can manufacture the same human collagen for less than 5% of what it costs in the west.” Skin from prisoners used to be even less expensive, he said. “Nowadays there is a certain fee that has to be paid to the court.”
The agent’s admission comes after an inquiry into the cosmetic surgery industry in Britain, commissioned by the Department of Health, pointed to the need for new regulations controlling collagen treatments. Sir Liam Donaldson, the chief medical officer, has highlighted the inquiry’s concerns about the use of cadavers for cosmetic treatments. “Cosmetic procedures are a rapidly growing area of private health care,” he said. “We must ensure we properly protect patients’ safety by improving the training and regulation.”
The DoH has agreed to the inquiry’s recommendations, but is waiting for the European commission to draw up proposals for laws governing cosmetic products. It could be several years before this legislation takes force.
Meanwhile, cosmetic treatments, including those with with aesthetic fillers, are growing rapidly in popularity, with around 150,000 injections or implants administered each year in the UK. Lip enhancement treatments are one of the most popular, costing an average of £170.
Some fillers are made from cattle or pig tissue, and others from humans. The DoH believes that there may be a risk of transmission of blood-borne viruses and even vCJD from collagen containing human tissue. Although there is as yet no evidence that this has happened, the inquiry found that some collagen injections had triggered inflammatory reactions causing permanent discomfort, scarring and disfigurement. In their report, the inquiry team said that if there was a risk, “action should be taken to protect patient safety through regulation”.
While new regulations are to be drawn up, the department is currently powerless to regulate most human-tissue fillers intended for injection or implant, as they occupy a legal grey area. Most products are not governed by regulations controlling medical products, as they are not classified as medicines. They also escape cosmetics regulations, which only apply to substances used on the surface of the skin and not those injected beneath it. The Healthcare Commission is planning new regulations for cosmetic surgery clinics next year, but these will not control the substances used by plastic surgeons.