Lawmaker wants limits on body exhibits

I-Team report
January 16, 2008 7:11:37 PM PST
A State Assembly member from San Francisco is trying to put limits on those traveling shows that feature real human bodies that have been preserved with silicone. The I-Team first investigated this burgeoning industry in 2005.

Shows featuring preserved human bodies and various parts are big business. Premier Exhibitions reports $30 million dollars in profits last year from the traveling show called "Bodies Revealed," now in Sacramento.

However, San Francisco Asemblywoman Fiona Ma has serious questions about all body shows.

"We're talking potentially about thousands of people who have been drained, pumped with plastic, chopped up like meat, and then served around the state for commercial purposes," says Democratic Assemblywoman Ma.

Ma is especially concerned that most of the shows now touring the world, including "Bodies Revealed," feature bodies from China.

Lisa Ikemoto, a bio-ethicist from UC Davis Law School agrees.

"I have particular concerns about the 'Bodies Revealed' show, not that I've seen it because I've heard that most or all of the bodies came from a particular city in China and that might make it easier for us to distance ourselves and treat them as entertainment or commodity," says Ikemoto.

I-Team reports about a different body show in San Francisco during the spring of 2005 sparked protests by Asian American groups. Many of the demonstrators told us the Chinese have a respect for the dead that would not allow such displays.

At Wednesday's hearing before the Arts, Entertainment and Sports Committee, Ma sponsored a bill to require exhibitors to prove the deceased gave permission for the bodies to appear in for-profit shows, before they died. The measure passed easily.

However, there's a challenge for Fiona Ma's idea. Say you have a piece of paper claiming that a person, before he died, or his family back in China gave permission for the body to be used this way. How can you verify it? Under Ma's bill, it would be up to local governments to figure that out.

"I believe that local governments will be able to come up with procedures and guidelines on how to handle such exhibits," says Assemblywoman Ma.

One of the big issues in the I-Team reports from 2005 was that the bodies at the San Francisco exhibit called "The Universe Within" were leaking. Tests revealed it was silicone and human fat, but the Department of Health concluded it posed no danger.

We checked out the "Bodies Revealed" exhibit in Sacramento Wednesday afternoon and found the same problems -- drops of clear fluid hanging from organs, pooling and one specimen leaked a red fluid. The chairman of Premier Exhibitions told us by phone late today it's not blood, but acrylic paint. He also said the clear fluid poses no danger.

"The silicone that comes out is harmless. We have had that verified over and over again because we wouldn't put any specimens out and make them available to the public if there was any possibility of harm," explains Arnie Geller, the chairman of Premier Exhibitions.

We contacted the Sacramento Health Department and they have launched an investigation. The I-Team will continue to keep you updated on this story.

Have a tip on this or another investigation? E-mail the ABC7 I-Team or call 1-888-40-I-TEAM.