19 Investigates: Donated bone and tissue used for cosmetic industry research nationally, but not in Northeast Ohio

Where do your organs go if you are an organ donor?

CLEVELAND, Ohio (WOIO) - One can only imagine the staggering grief over the sudden, unexplained death of your child, while at the same time fielding a barrage of phone calls imploring you to donate your daughter’s organs and tissue to save other lives.

“My responses were yes, yes, yes, no, yes, yes. I was in no state of mind to answer anything. I was in shock. And I felt like I didn’t get an option I felt like I was pressured,” said Jennifer Stewart.

Last month, 19 News reported on the case of 17-year-old Vanessa Webb. She was an Amherst teenager whose organs and tissue were harvested and donated before an autopsy could even be done to determine her cause of death.

Stewart is now suing the Lorain County Coroner for giving permission to the organ bank to harvest Vanessa’s organs and tissue before an autopsy.

Time is of the essence when it comes to life saving organ transplants.

A heart, kidney, liver, lung is only viable for hours after death and in many cases, they’re desperately needed by those with just days to live.

But Stewart said there’s one big detail the organ and tissue bank left out.

Information they were under no legal obligation to disclose.

A fact that leads Stewart to now say, “Had I known what I know today there would be no way possible way that I would have considered it.”

As 19 News discovered, the reality is while skin and tissue donations are used to treat patients with all sorts of devastating injuries from burns to accident victims, they’re also used for something else.

“But it could be used for cosmetic purposes. It can be used for plastic surgery, nose jobs, face lifts, and so on. And it can even be used by cosmetic companies to test products.”

Sharona Hoffman specializes in medical ethics at Case Western Reserve School of Law and said it’s big business.

Non-profit organ and tissues banks around the country are raking in an estimated one billion dollars every year selling skin and tissue from victims of accidents, murder, and those who die from natural causes like Vanessa Webb.

The organ and tissue bank that handled the case doesn’t deny it sells donated tissue to for-profit companies where it could be used for cosmetic surgery and the make-up industry.

But in a statement to 19 News it stated it’s “proud and honored to help make those gifts of healing possible. Ultimately, it is the people who register as organ, eye and tissue donors and the selflessness of their families that deserve the most recognition.”

“The tissue banks get the money.

The donor or family do not get the money.

And it can generate many thousands of dollars in profits and that includes the use in plastic surgery so that’s big money as well and it’s often not covered by insurance.

So, the tissue bank will get the money for providing the skin and bones and tissue for those procedures as well,” Hoffman said.

Hoffman said it makes animal rights groups happy.

For years, she noted, PETA and other organizations have protested the use of innocent animals in cosmetic research.

Some companies have switched to testing cosmetics on human tissue.

In a statement to 19 News, the chief scientist for the trade group representing some of the nation’s largest cosmetic companies said, “The personal care products industry has prioritized researching and developing alternative methods to animal testing, while numerous natural and synthetic test systems have been developed to mimic normal human skin, in some cases, donated human skin samples give the most accurate assessment of how the human body will manage such product exposures.”

But those who sign up to be organ donors at the DMV have no idea that, in addition to savings lives they’re also signing up to make those who can afford it more beautiful.

”First of all, when you sign up at least in Ohio you’re only asked about being an organ donor. And so, you don’t even know you’re going to be a tissue donor. There aren’t separate questions,” said Hoffman.

Instead of taking solace that her daughter may have saved the lives of others, Jennifer Stewart has changed the designation that used to be on her own driver’s license.

“I used to be an organ donor. I’m not anymore an organ donor because I don’t feel like it’s helping ones that are in need rather than ones who need an upgrade,” said Jennifer Stewart.

The cosmetic industry trade group went on to say, “When our member companies use these methods, they do so with the knowledge that these tissue samples were donated with the intent of advancing scientific knowledge and follow all applicable ethical, legal and regulatory standards, and the tissue samples are treated with the utmost respect the donors expect and deserve.”

Lifebanc, the non-profit organ, eye and tissue recovery organization serving Northeast Ohio provided a statement to 19 News saying its distributors do not used donated bone and tissue for cosmetic industry research.

Copyright 2019 WOIO. All rights reserved.