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The fight for women poisoned by breast implants

In 2012, the lives of almost 50,000 British women were changed for ever. They had undergone breast augmentation, but were fitted with faulty French implants.

The scandal broke in June that year, after a UK report found that the implants – made by the firm Poly Implant Prothèse (PIP) – had double the rupture rate of other implants. They were also found to be made of the sort of silicone used in mattresses. It is estimated that more than 400,000 women were affected around the world.

Five years on, following a lengthy trial, the German cosmetic-surgery certification agency, TÜV Rheinland, has been ordered to pay out €60m (£54.2m) to 20,000 victims from Europe for medical negligence. However, that payout only amounts to €3,000 each and doesn’t even cover the cost of the initial surgery, for which most women would have paid upwards of £4,000. And many of the women have had to battle long-lasting health problems caused by the implants, which has led to further costs.

One of these women is Samantha Turner, 33, from Somerset, who had her implants fitted when she was 25. She has had to undergo five additional operations because of health complications. “The poison that was put into my body has wreaked havoc. I was feeling sick and in pain, yet no one could identify what was wrong with me,” she says.

Silicone from the ruptured implants leaked into her lymph nodes, causing a cancer scare and leading her to have her lymph nodes removed. It left her with a blood clot and permanent nerve-damage in her left arm – severely impacting her ability to work and look after her two young children.

Michele Nethercott, 33, from Brighton, underwent breast augmentation surgery when she was 20 years old. She was never told by her clinic that she had been given the toxic implants; she had to find out herself.

The implants are still inside her. The NHS won’t remove them unless there are obvious signs of rupture, and she cannot afford to get them taken out and replaced privately, which would cost about £8,000.

“I sometimes want to cut my chest open to remove these ticking time bombs, but then anxiety sinks in about what I will look like without them,” she says. “I only had them done after being left lopsided after breastfeeding my eldest. Before my surgery, I hated how I looked – I didn’t have a life and couldn’t go out.”

Turner claims the issue has been brushed under the carpet due to the cosmetic nature of the scandal. “It feels like, because we are women and we’ve done something to our bodies to make us feel more confident, it’s getting brushed to one side – like it’s our fault for getting it done in the first place. But these clinics were inserting medical devices into women that were substandard and faulty,” she says.

A growing sense of injustice has led many of the women fitted with PIP implants to mobilise, forming groups online. The biggest of these, Opic, has more than 1,000 members on Facebook and, for many, has been a source of stability and support, as well as friendship. The groups have also provided a rallying point for those driving the legal case against TÜV Rheinland – with many of the women in the Opic group saying they have had to rely on each other “to get things done” and stay informed.

Despite the recent ruling in their favour, the women are still awaiting their payout. They will also have to file new a lawsuit and start from scratch if they want more compensation.

“If it hadn’t been for the group, I wouldn’t have known they were putting a legal case together,” says Gayle, 47, from Huddersfield. “It has been the group that has kept me up to date rather than anyone else. It is comforting to know you’re not alone.”

“There was a point when I was on it every day, getting support and advice from others,” says Turner. “It has been a great help.”

That said, many of the women are looking forward to the day when they won’t have to use the groups. After years of waiting, many of them no longer care about receiving compensation and are sceptical that the money will surface. PIP’s founder, Jean-Claude Mas, was forced to apologise by his lawyers after being found guilty of aggravated fraud for hiding the substandard nature of the material used in the implants and sentenced to four years in jail. But none of the cosmetic surgery clinics have ever publicly apologised for using the implants.

“Of course it would be nice if they could compensate me for what I paid initially, the other operations I had to have and the mental anguish,” Turner says. “But, ultimately, what I want is to get recognition from society that says: ‘Yes, you have been part of one of the world’s biggest medical scandals.’”