We usually think of blood donation as a voluntary, unpaid act of service, rather than a market transaction, and in fact many countries have banned the practice of paying blood donors for ethical and medical reasons. A report by Alan Macleod for Mint Press News illustrates the exploitative nature of plasma donation for profit in the US today. Blood plasma, the liquid substance that carries white and red blood cells through the body, is highly sought-after for various medical procedures across the globe, and the United States is the world’s leading supplier. US dominance of the market is not by chance—companies that pay for blood plasma donations strategically locate donor centers in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods in order to produce the highest donor turnout. As one former donor told Mint Press News, the donation centers “are never in a good part of town,” and the people donating are “a mix of disabled, working poor, homeless, single parents, and college students.”
As the Atlantic reported in 2018, while donating blood can provide a semi-consistent source of income for low-income populations, doing so entails dangers and uncertainties. Donors are allowed to give blood up to twice per week. A 2018 study of plasma donation centers, conducted by researchers at Case Western Reserve University, found that 57% of plasma donors in the study made more than a third of their monthly income (approximately $250-300) by donating plasma, and 70% of these donors experienced side effects from donation, including weakness, bruising, dehydration, and faintness.
However, donors return to donation centers for the fast cash, incentivized by frequent donor rewards, and bonuses for recruiting new members. Since plasma is always in high demand and there is no substitute, it is in the plasma corporations’ best interest to do what they can to keep supplies stocked – and US firms’ strategy is to buy blood from the poor. Like many other medical and pharmaceutical industries, the barriers to entry are high costs for research and certification, leading to extreme market consolidation with a mere four firms at the very top. These four companies treat the people who sell their blood as a source of raw material ready for extraction, providing little support for the physical repercussions the extraction may cause.
As a story that highlights the pervasive problem of wealth inequality in the US and the extent to which private for-profit corporations exploit humans, corporate coverage of this story has been limited in comparison with independent reports from Mint Press News, ProPublica, World Socialist Website, and the Atlantic, for example. That noted, in February 2019, the New York Times ran an article on the “booming” plasma donation business in the US, noting that, in 2016, blood products accounted for 1.9 percent of all American exports. The Times’ report drew on the Case Western Reserved study and addressed the exploitative nature of for-profit plasma donations in the US, where the plasma for which donors are paid $30 will be worth $300 in the global market.
Source: Alan Macleod, “Harvesting the Blood of America’s Poor: The Latest Stage of Capitalism,” Mint Press News, December 3, 2019, https://www.mintpressnews.com/harvesting-blood-americas-poor-late-stage-capitalism/263175/.
Student Researcher: Allegra Wu (University of Vermont)
Faculty Evaluator: Rob Williams (University of Vermont)
Editor’s Note: For prior Validated Independent News coverage of this story, see also “Who Profits from Plasma Donations on the US/Mexico Border?”