Of RFID and Breast Implants

How do you know if silicone breast implants are leaking? RFID transponders might one day tell you.
Published: November 20, 2006

The news that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has lifted its 14-year ban on the use of silicone implants for breast augmentation and reconstructive surgery raises an interesting question: Some reports say the implants last between 10 and 20 years, then have to be replaced. So how does a woman know when it’s time to replace her implants?

Today, there is no way. But one day, radio frequency transponders on the implants might let her (or, more likely, her doctor) know.

I’ve always been opposed to implants—both the silicone kind and the RFID kind. I felt implanting RFID transponders in people was unnecessary and somewhat gruesome (though I have nothing against people who choose to do it on their own). But my position has now changed. One reason was Hurricane Katrina, and another was RFID’s potential to monitor medical devices placed in humans.

Pacemakers, stents, artificial heart valves and, yes, event breast implants, deteriorate over time. Today, there is almost no way to check on their condition without an operation. Researchers are working on RFID transponders that are so tiny they could be built into these devices not only to identify them for inventory and billing purposes, but also to report on the condition of the device.

I know some privacy advocates might jump up and down at the very thought of this, but doctors and researchers see some major potential benefits of being able to monitor a heart valve’s condition by placing an RFID interrogator next to a person’s chest and getting information on the device. Such a device would have sensors linked to the RFID transponder. A tiny rupture in a breast implant could be detected by a sensor and transmitted electronically to an RFID transponder. When the woman’s doctor interrogated the transponder, the doctor would then learn of the problem.

These tags would have an extremely short read range. You would probably have to put the interrogator next to the skin to pick up a signal, so this technology could not be used to track people. But it could save a lot of lives.

Most of this research is still very experimental, and few companies want to talk about the work they are doing publicly for fear of giving up their competitive advantage. Smart implants are probably five to 10 years away. So any women thinking of having breast implants but concerned about the dangers of silicone implants might want to wait a while. In the meantime, women would do well to stay abreast of such research.