About 15 per cent of women in Canada seeking breast implants receive the silicone type.

A panel of American health experts began three days of meetings Monday to consider whether the government should lift a ban on silicone-gel breast implants.

The panel established by the Food and Drug Administration must decide whether the latest brands are safe enough to be widely marketed.

Monday was set aside to hear from members of the public, including women who blame a variety of health problems on leaking silicone implants they received in the 1970s and 1980s.

"I don't want anybody else to suffer this way," Florida resident Susan Helman told the scientists as the hearings began.

Only breast cancer survivors and others needing breast reconstruction or implant replacements have been able to get silicone implants in the United States in the past 13 years.

Silicone-filled breast implants were banned for most American women in 1992, after reports that leaks were causing a variety of health problems ranging from chronic fatigue and depression to cancer and lupus.

In Canada, the government asked for a voluntary moratorium on the sale of silicone implants, but about 15 per cent of women receiving implants still ask for and receive the silicone type.

Dan Cohen of Inamed Corporation, one of two manufacturers asking for the American ban to be lifted, says the new generation of silicone implants are sturdier and feel more natural than implants containing saline solution.

"In countries where women have the choice outside the United States, women choose silicone by a rate of over 90 per cent," he said.

Dr. Scott Spear, president of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, says researchers have failed to find any link between silicone leaks and illness.

"Hundreds of epidemiological studies have been done ... and there's no evidence that silicone or breast implants make you sick, so that's really a critical piece of information," he said.

Federal scientists have disputed claims such as Spear's in past hearings, though, saying the studies showing no ill effects tracked small numbers of women for short times.

One Food and Drug Administration report estimated that as many as three-quarters of silicone implants could rupture within 10 years of being placed inside women's chests, leading to painful scarring and repeat surgeries.