Until fairly recently, no-one gave much thought to what should be done with medical implants after a person died – any that remained after cremation were simply collected and sent to landfill sites.
But now, far more people have implants inserted, from hip and knee joints to dental implants and heart pacemakers. There was a realization that a lot of valuable and reusable material was going to waste.
Some enterprising companies have started to tackle this situation in a positive way by devising a system called cremated implant recycling.
Burial or cremation
What happens to medical implants after death depends on whether burial or cremation is requested. If the body is buried, implants are not generally removed beforehand as there is no specific reason to do so.
During cremation, soft materials such as silicone breast implants are vaporized along with the body, but metals from implants, such as hip and knee replacements, are left behind. These are then separated from the remaining ash using magnets.
Metals for the implant industry
Many implants are made from titanium or cobalt, which are difficult and expensive to produce. Finding alternative sources of these metals means that implant manufacturers can keep down the costs of their products for hospitals.
Cremated implant recycling involves collecting the implants after cremation, re-melting the metal, then selling it to manufacturing companies, many of which produce medical implants. Implants themselves, with the exception of pacemakers, are never reused.
Pacemakers are always removed from a body before cremation because their batteries can explode when heated. Previously, they were simply disposed of in landfill sites.
Recently, however, researchers at Frankel Cardiovascular Center in Michigan have been conducting projects to find out if pre-used pacemakers are safe to be implanted into a second recipient. The results of the research have shown that people who received the previously-used pacemakers suffered no ill-effects.
A charity, ”My Heart, Your Heart ” has been established alongside the research, with the aim of encouraging people to donate their pacemaker after they die so that it can be used for a person in a developing country.
Another charity, ”World Medical Relief” already sends pacemakers and other medical implants to be reused in developing countries, to help prevent some of the millions of deaths a year from heart disease.
Benefits for all
The cremated implant recycling system has benefits for everyone involved. The recycling companies are able to run successful businesses, and the crematories are paid for the metals recovered.
This money is never kept by them, but is given either to the deceased person’s family or a local charity. Metals which would have gone into landfill sites are re-used for the benefit of industry and of the health sector.