Maria Aspan, Fortune: May 18, 2020
Thirty-three years before her death, Paulette Parr visited her doctor for a popular and relatively routine procedure. It was 1986, and Parr was 35, working in human resources at the local hospital in Sikeston, a 16,000-person Missouri enclave midway between St. Louis and Memphis. A married mother of two young boys, she was interested in what plastic surgeons still call a “mommy makeover,” a catchall for the various procedures that nip, tuck, and lift women back to a pre-childbirth shape. For Parr, that meant getting her first set of breast implants.
For the next 15 years, through losing her first husband and remarrying and getting promoted to her hospital’s purchasing department, Parr was mostly happy with her implants, and with how they made her look and feel. But they were silicone-based, a type the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned in 1992 over concerns that they were causing autoimmune and safety problems, and Parr eventually started to worry about them. So by 2002, when she learned that one of her implants had ruptured and was leaking silicone into her body, Parr’s surgeon replaced them with saline-filled versions. Her new Biocell implants were covered in a roughly textured silicone shell, designed to reduce movement of the device.
That’s when Parr’s implant-related health problems really began, according to a lawsuit her husband has filed against pharmaceutical company Allergan, the maker of Biocell products and one of three major manufacturers of American breast implants. In 2010, after one of her saline implants started leaking, her plastic surgeon replaced them with yet another set of Biocell textured implants, this time filled with silicone, which the FDA had allowed back onto the market in 2006.
“They were gorgeous, and they were put in by a reputable doctor,” says Paulette’s widower, Calvin Parr, months after her death. “We never gave it a second thought.”
Breast implants have long been a punch line, mocked as frivolous markers of female vanity. But that dismissive attitude overlooks a business with a serious and sometimes deadly impact on the health of its overwhelmingly female customer base. More than 8 million American women have undergone breast-related plastic surgeries since 2000; in 2018 alone, more than 400,000 women chose one for either cosmetic or reconstructive reasons. Breast augmentation is the most popular cosmetic procedure tracked by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons.
Many women, especially those affected by breast cancer, say they are grateful to have implants as an option. “It’s a decision that’s personal,” says Lynn Jeffers, the society’s current president, a plastic surgeon, and a cancer survivor who’s getting post-mastectomy reconstruction. “With the data that I have now, I’m comfortable having implants.”
And pharmaceutical companies have been very comfortable selling them, despite a long history of government recalls and product-liability lawsuits. Allergan, which was acquired by AbbVie in May, sold $399.5 million worth of implants in 2017, before regulators around the globe started banning some of its products. Its main rival, Johnson & Johnson, doesn’t break out results for its Mentor Worldwide breast implant business. Smaller specialist Sientra reported annual “breast products” revenues of $46.4 million in 2019.
Those numbers pale in comparison to blockbusters like Allergan bestseller Botox, which raked in $3.8 billion last year. But like Botox, breast implants can have attractive recurring revenue built in for manufacturers and the doctors who use their products. Even under ideal circumstances, breast implants “are not lifetime devices,” the FDA warns, and will likely need to be replaced every 10 to 15 years, for a cost of up to $12,000 per cosmetic procedure.
Yet as doctors, patients, lawyers, and public health experts tell Fortune, breast implants have remained on the market despite decades of inadequate testing and study, recurrent safety concerns, and poor regulatory oversight. Those problems plague many medical devices, which range from machines used outside the body to artificial parts implanted within it. But breast implants are unique in their affiliation with female sexuality and physical appearance, their intersecting roles as elective beauty products and clinical tools that can help cancer survivors feel more like themselves—and the degree to which patients’ mounting concerns about them have been dismissed for decades. Now, that accumulated failure of oversight has created sweeping, sometimes tragic crises for potentially millions of women.
“There are a lot of women who are really suffering,” says Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Center for Health Research. “You have these products that are widely, widely sold, and every few years we learn something new about the problems they cause.”
Breast implant makers walk a particularly fine line when it comes to creating a product that is both safe and “realistic.” Today’s implants are either filled with saline (more likely to break) or silicone (more natural looking and feeling but plagued by a history of safety concerns). Their exteriors can be either smooth or made of a “textured” silicone shell. Smooth implants are more popular in the U.S., but surgeons working with mastectomy patients sometimes prefer textured versions, because the products’ rougher surface enables tissue to grow onto the implant more easily.
All of these variations are prone to malfunctions or side effects, which can include ruptured implants; a buildup of scar tissue that can cause pain and tissue hardening; a large collection of symptoms often known as “breast implant illness,” which can include joint pain, migraines, and chronic fatigue; and, increasingly, a sometimes fatal cancer of the immune system known as BIA-ALCL, for “breast implant–associated anaplastic large cell lymphoma.”
“The breast implants that are on the market right now all have issues,” says Madris Tomes, a former FDA manager who tracks reported medical device failures at her Device Events firm. “I wouldn’t recommend them to anyone that I care about.”
The causes of the various problems with breast implants are still poorly understood, which public health experts blame on a lack of testing or objective, long-term studies that do not rely on manufacturer-provided data or funding. Device makers also have yet to fully report the data the FDA required as a condition of allowing silicone implants back on the market in 2006.
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