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Why breast implants don't work

Cosmetic surgery is nothing more than an industrial-scale scientific experiment, carried out on vuln

We are asking the wrong question about the Poly Implant Prothèse (PIP) breast implants. Yes, they rupture, releasing industrial-grade silicone mattress-filler into women's bodies. But we don't need new research to know what the medical outcomes will be. The effects of putting silicone into the body have been charted since the 1950s, when the first augmentations started going wrong. The right question to ask is this: why has it been allowed to continue for half a century?

Cosmetic surgery is nothing more than an industrial-scale scientific experiment. The augmentation of women's breasts began as an application of chemical wizardry, ushered in on the gleaming wings of postwar science. The surgeon's hypothesis has been that a problem of self-esteem can be fixed using polymers and medical technology. This didn't always go well - in the 1950s and 1960s, women were given augmentations that sometimes went so wrong that they needed mastectomies. Now, though, the results are in.

Next month, for example, the journal Psychological Medicine will publish a study of almost 1,600 Norwegian adolescent girls who were monitored over a 13-year period. They were asked about their satisfaction with their personal appearance, sexual behaviour, drug use, behavioural issues and attitudes towards cosmetic surgery. The finding is that women who use cosmetic surgery do not have lower opinions of their general attractiveness than women who do not opt for surgery. However, they display more symptoms of depression and anxiety, use more illicit drugs and have stronger histories of self-harm and suicide attempts. And the surgery is likely to make things worse.

Post-surgery, these women became more depressed and anxious, with greater alcohol consumption and more problems with eating disorders. As the researchers conclude: "A series of mental health symptoms predict cosmetic surgery. Cosmetic surgery does not in turn seem to alleviate such mental health problems."

This is not the first such report. In 2009, a five-year study showed that, although augmentation patients are happier with their body shape, their self-esteem does not increase by anywhere near the same amount.

Perhaps the most startling observation is the heightened suicide rate among women who have undergone surgery for breast implantation. The researchers who uncovered it almost a decade ago were looking for evidence that implants could be linked to cancers and autoimmune diseases. They found nothing conclusive on that score, but the data did show that women who had received breast implants were three times more likely to kill themselves. As yet, no one understands why.

Breaking the code

Viewing cosmetic surgery as an experiment means we should also submit it to ethical consideration. The Nuremberg Code governing experimentation on human subjects states that the individual "should have sufficient knowledge and comprehension of the elements of the subject matter involved"; that the experiment "should be such as to yield fruitful results for the good of society, unprocurable by other methods"; and: "Proper preparations should be made and adequate facilities provided to protect the experimental subject against even remote possibilities of injury, disability, or death." The great breast augmentation experiment does not meet these standards.

Cosmetic breast implantation is a flawed and ethically corrupt psychological experiment, carried out for commercial profit on vulnerable women. And it should now be halted.

Michael Brooks's "Free Radicals: the Secret Anarchy of Science" is published by Profile Books (£12.99)

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. His most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 20 February 2012 issue of the New Statesman, How do we stop Iran getting the bomb?