ICIJ Wins August Sidney for Investigation of Global Human Tissue Trade

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By: Press Release | The Sidney Hillman Foundation

NEW YORK: The Sidney Hillman Foundation announced today that a 13-journalist team led by International Consortium of Investigative Journalists Director Gerard Ryle and ICIJ reporter Kate Willson has won the August Sidney Award for “Skin and Bone,” a sweeping investigation of the largely unregulated global trade in human tissues.

The ICIJ investigation, which spanned 11 countries, was inspired in part by the case of a  prominent ex-dental surgeon who was found to have illegally recycled tissue from over a thousand bodies from funeral homes in New York and Pennsylvania. The story was reported by the New York Daily News in 2005.

Unlike organs and blood, the trade in bone, skin, and other tissues is not carefully monitored by independent agencies. The temptation to cut corners is high, given that a single healthy body can yield up to $200,000 worth of recyclable tissues. 

Get the backstory on the global human tissue trade in our interview with Gerard Ryle. He explains the FDA’s lax oversight and the world of non-consensual tissue harvesting.

Doctors use human tissue for procedures ranging from spinal reconstruction to plastic surgery, often without telling their patients. Also, when doctors order tissue, they usually do so from a catalog that lacks any information on the tissue’s provenance, or under what circumstances it was collected.

Tissues from a single body are often divvied up amongst multiple patients on different continents. But there is no system in place to notify the recipients if the donor body turns out to have had an infection. Unscrupulous body brokers have even falsified records to hide deadly infections and violent deaths, ICIJ found.

Contaminated tissue has been linked to at least 1,352 infections and 40 deaths in the U.S. since 2002, according to ICIJ’s analysis of FDA records.
“Recycled human tissue has the power to heal, but the unregulated market for tissue also has great potential to harm. The ICIJ investigation explores this multifaceted issue with great rigor and great compassion,” said Sidney judge Lindsay Beyerstein.

The ICIJ, a project of the Center for Public Integrity, is a global network of 160 journalists in over 60 countries who work together on investigative stories.

The ICIJ team for “Skin and Bones” consisted of Gerard Ryle, Kate Willson, Vlad Lavrov, Martina Keller, Thomas Maier, Michael Hudson, Mar Cabra, Kimberley Porteous, David Donald, Alexenia Dimitrova, and Nari Kim. NPR reporters Joseph Shapiro and Sandra Bartlett also contributed.
Kate Willson joined the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists in 2007. She earned her master’s in journalism at American University and her bachelor’s in French at Oregon State University. Focused on enterprise and investigative reporting, she has worked from Colombia, Brazil, Mexico and for community and daily newspapers in Oregon and New Mexico.

Gerard Ryle leads the ICIJ’s headquarters staff in Washington, D.C., as well as overseeing the consortium’s more than 160 member journalists in more than 60 countries. Before joining as the ICIJ’s first non-American director in September 2011, Ryle spent 26 years working as a reporter, investigative reporter and editor in Australia and Ireland, including two decades at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age newspapers. 

The Sidney Hillman Foundation honors excellence in journalism in service of the common good. Judges are Rose Arce, Hendrik Hertzberg, Katrina vanden Heuvel, Harold Meyerson, Susan Meiselas, and Lindsay Beyerstein.

The Sidney Award is given once a month to an outstanding piece of socially conscious journalism, by the Sidney Hillman Foundation, which also awards the annual Hillman Prizes every spring. Winners of the Sidney receive a certificate designed by New Yorker cartoonist, Edward Sorel, a $500 honorarium and a bottle of union-made wine.

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