Can I Get A Volunteer?

October 11, 2013

The human body, broken down into the chemicals it’s made up of, would only be worth about five bucks. This is what I was told in junior high school in both biology and home economics. I wasn’t one of those guys who took home ec to be in a class with a bunch of girls. In junior high we had all the basics–social studies, math, science, English, gym, and throughout the school year spent one term in an art class, one term in music, one term in computers, where we learned how to make a blue dot appear on a Mac screen which was the coolest thing any of us had seen up to that point, one term in home economics, and one term in shop. That way all the boys got a chance to bake cookies, and all the girls got a chance to cut off a finger with a band saw.

I have no idea why two different teachers felt it was so important to tell us how little our component chemicals were worth. It’s not like any of us were in the corner trying to see how much sodium we could extract from Kevin to sell on the black market. The claim also seemed more than a little suspicious to me. How exactly were they breaking down a person’s component chemicals? The human body is approximately 70% water. Let’s say the average person is five foot ten and weighs a hundred and eighty pounds. That’s just a rough guess on my part, because I really don’t know what average looks like, although in my experience I look up to a lot of people because I seem to be shorter than average. Actually I’m not sure what anyone knows what "average" looks like. Frequently when I see crime reports the suspect is described as "average height, average build". I imagine the cops sending out an APB for anyone who’s abnormally normal, but that’s another story.

Anyway, the average person would consist of 108 and ½ pounds of water—or a little more than thirteen and a half gallons. The price of a sixteen ounce bottle of water varies, but let’s say it’s three dollars. It’s less if you’re buying in bulk, but cut me some slack—I barely scraped by in math in junior high. Besides if you’re talking about water extracted from a human body you can slap a fancy label on it—Human2O!—and mark it up a bit. That means the water alone will sell for a tidy $324. So we should have at least tried to extract the water from Kevin. And if you could break up that water into hydrogen and oxygen you would probably get even more than that, although I don’t have any hard figures on how much hydrogen goes for on the black market. The same is true of carbon, which would make up almost another thirty pounds of our hypothetical average person. If we had the means we could combine it with the water to make sugar, or just with the hydrogen to make gasoline, but I think the cheapest thing would be to just sell it as charcoal briquettes. They run about $30 for a three pound bag, so that’s another $300.

So, the next time you’re sitting on the couch watching TV next to your spouse, partner, roommate, friend, or other assorted person if they’re average they’re probably worth more than enough for you to buy a better TV. And that’s not counting the other stuff. Our hypothetical human also has a little more than four and a half pounds of nitrogen, although I don’t know what you’d use nitrogen for, plus smaller amounts of some cool stuff like sulfur, potassium, sodium, and chlorine. There’s even a trace amount of arsenic. I would try to put a price on that, but the math gets really hard at that level, and I’m also pretty sure looking up the price of arsenic online is just asking the NSA to knock on my door. But I also think there’s more than one way to value a human being. Specifically, why bother with breaking down a person into component molecules and elements when whole organs are worth so much more? Admittedly the idea of an organ black market—at least in the United States, and other first world nations–has always seemed more than a little suspicious to me. Hospitals aren’t like pawn shops. You can’t walk in with a cooler and say, “Yeah, I’ve got a kidney and some eyes here. How much could you give me for them?” Yes, it might make paying for a major operation easier if they’d at least offer store credit, but I don’t want to see the paperwork for that.

That’s why the urban legend about the guy who goes out partying with some strangers and wakes up the next morning in a tub full of ice with one or both kidneys missing always struck me as suspicious. It probably says something about me that the first thing that comes to my mind is, “Where are you going to find a buyer for those kidneys?” The next thing, of course, is, why’d they even bother to leave the guy alive? He spent the night partying with some people, and even if they were all average height and average build I’m pretty sure he could still identify them in a lineup. And it probably says something about me that I start thinking that the surgery to remove a couple of kidneys would be easier on a corpse than a living person, and if you’ve got a buyer for a kidney or two they’d probably be even more interested in a heart, a liver, a couple of eyes, maybe some intestine. I may not be able to get as much for a whole body, because that would be selling in bulk, but I’ve heard that organs for transplant can be valued in the tens of thousands of dollars, so I could probably get a good price for a whole body. There’s even precedent for this sort of thing. Two men named Burke and Hare in Edinburgh murdered a series of lodgers in their homes and made a pretty good living by selling the bodies for medical experimentation. And this was in 1828. I bet the rates have gone up. This is all hypothetical, of course. To make sure all this is accurate I’d need to run some tests with real subjects.

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