What Can You Learn From a Fake Breast?

The secrets of a silicone serial number.

Jasmine Fiore 

When police found the remains of former Playboy model Jasmine Fiore on Aug. 15, her body was so mutilated that they had to use the serial numbers on her breast implants to identify her. How much information can be gleaned from a fake breast?

The owner’s name, address, phone number, and Social Security number, as well as the contact information for her surgeon and primary-care doctor. By checking an implant’s serial number against a manufacturer database, police can also learn the date of implantation, whether the fake breast was on the left or right side of the body, and whether the implant had to be removed or replaced at any point.

According to government rules first applied to the industry in the early 1990s, every silicone breast implant must carry an imprinted serial number. After the surgery, a doctor enters the number (or places an appropriately bar-coded sticker) onto each of three device-tracking forms (PDF). Copies go to the patient, the doctor, and the manufacturer. (Manufacturers also put serial numbers on saline implants, though the FDA stopped requiring them to track those devices closely in 1997.)

Those who receive a pair of breast implants will have two distinct serial numbers associated with their records. Implants are not sold in pairs—patients who have undergone unilateral mastectomy sometimes need only one implant, and many women use two different sizes or shapes of implants to compensate for natural asymmetry. Two implants in the same woman may have consecutive serial numbers or they may not. Most surgeons take a couple of extra implants into a surgery in case one is defective or something goes wrong during implantation. (If there is a defect or surgical error requiring an implant to be discarded before implantation, that information must also be reported to the manufacturer.) Some take a huge variety of implants into the operating room and try out different sizes to match the patient’s breasts to a photograph of her ideal.

Using breast implants as forensic identifiers is a last resort, because it requires the victim to be cut open. (There’s no way to read the serial number through the many layers of skin, fat, and vasculature that cover it.) In general, the numbers are used by the Food and Drug Administration to keep track of the failure rate and as a means for executing a product recall. An implant manufacturer must provide the government with access to device-tracking data on request, although a patient may decline to participate in the program due to privacy concerns. (Once the patient has died, the coroner may choose to access the records either way.)

These record-keeping requirements are not unique to breast implants. Under federal law, the FDA may require manufacturers to establish a procedure for tracking any device that will remain in the human body for more than one year or would cause serious health consequences if it were to fail. The government also tracks such devices as pacemakers and defibrillators.

Explainer thanks Heather Katt of Allergan Inc. and Alan Matarasso of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons.

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