Body Parts From Trash

Science, technology, and life.
Feb. 2 2009 7:41 AM

Body Parts From Trash

We cover a lot of fancy technology in this blog. But sometimes the most ingenious and far-reaching gadgetry is the least fancy.

A few recent cases: First we looked at incubators made from car parts . Then we learned about ugly standardized glasses you can adjust to your eyesight with a pump . In both cases, engineers are improving life in the developing world by using cheap, available materials instead of cutting-edge technology. But why stop with external devices? Why not extend the low-tech, high-utility revolution into the human body?

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right. Follow him on Twitter.

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That's what Thailand's Prostheses Foundation is doing for thousands of Thais who have lost their legs to land mines, diabetes, and birth defects. "In 17 years, the foundation says it has given away more than 30,000 legs," Agence France Presse reports . In the United States, prosthetic legs cost $10,000 to $50,000 or more. So how can the Prostheses Foundation afford to give them away?

Answer:

It is the recycled materials that make the project workable, Thamrongrat [the foundation's vice chairman] said, as they they keep costs down and allow the foundation to make and distribute more legs. The foundation asks people to donate materials that can be used in the limbs, such as beer cans and aluminum pots. A prosthetic for below the knee costs the foundation 1,000 baht (about 28 dollars) to make, Thamrongrat said. It would cost the government 10,000 baht to build a similar one.

Example:

Twelve-year-old Matoha Dosare was born with no right leg, but thanks to recycled soft drink cans and some old stockings, he now has a new limb and new-found independence. ... Matoha has had three new legs fitted in the last two years, with the metal in the joints coming from the donated bottle caps and tins. The nylon from the stockings is used in the sculpting process to help form the legs.

Three prosthetic legs in two years? That sounds bad. The downside of getting a leg made from soda cans is that aluminum doesn't last as long as steel. But if the upside is a 90 percent cut in production cost, the kid comes out ahead, because he can get those three legs for one-third the cost of a government-issued prosthesis. And since he's growing, each new leg can be adjusted to his increasing size.

But here's the really interesting twist:

One prosthetic offered is the "farmer's leg," which uses more steel and ends in a stump with tire treads on the bottom rather than a false foot. This was created because farmers complained the foot got stuck in the mud. ...

The prosthetic extension designed to mimic a human foot did what feet sometimes do: It got stuck. So the leg makers replaced it with an extension designed for performance in mud. They made a foot more like a tire. In fact, they made a foot from a tire. It lacks the mobility of a healthy human foot. But for farming in Thailand, it has a better shape.

Who said the era of re-engineering the human body has to be expensive?