NEW YORK (CBS) Workers at Little Rock National Airport got a bit of a shock last week when they stumbled upon a shipment of boxes containing dozens of human heads. But experts say there's nothing uncommon about body parts tagging along for a ride on commercial flights.
"It's not at all unusual," said Dr. Ernest F. Talarico, director of medical education at the Indiana University School of Medicine in Gary, Ind. Medical schools need a constant supply of human cadavers for dissection by first-year students, and body parts and entire cadavers are commonly shipped on commercial aircraft, he said.
When there is a surplus of cadavers in one state, some are often shipped on airliners to states that have shortages, he said.
The boxes containing 45 heads - found by an employee of Southwest Airlines - were bound for a medical laboratory in Fort Worth, Texas, where they were to be used to train neurosurgeons, the New York Times reported. But the local authorities decided to hold the heads at the county morgue until they could make sure the heads were obtained legally.
"I don't just want to ship body parts all around the country not knowing their origin," Garland Camper, coroner of Pulaski County, told CBS News. "I have to make sure they were legally obtained. I have to make sure the family members gave consent and that what is going on with them is legitimate."
He said he was looking into "inconsistencies" with the shipment's paperwork.
In many cases, organs and other body parts are harvested from donated cadavers and then shipped to medical and dental schools that need them for training purposes. For example, dental schools often get shipments of heads or half-heads, he said.
"I work on eyes, and I sometimes drive up to Chicago O'Hare to meet a flight that has eyes for our research," he said.
In addition, donor organs are often shipped on commercial aircraft.
Talarico said that states have strict guidelines that cover the way cadavers and tissues are shipped in order to protect passengers and transportation workers from communicable illnesses and other bio-hazards.
In the end, officials wouldn't tell CBS News exactly who had ordered the mysterious body parts, but it sounds like a group of neurosurgeons were looking to get ahead.