For much of the world, donating blood is purely an act of solidarity; a civic duty that the healthy perform to aid others in need. The idea of being paid for such an action would be considered bizarre. But in the United States, it is big business. Indeed, in today’s wretched economy, where around 130 million Americans admit an inability to pay for basic needs like food, housing or healthcare, buying and selling blood is of the few booming industries America has left.
The number of collection centers in the United States has more than doubled since 2005 and blood now makes up well over 2 percent of total U.S. exports by value. To put that in perspective, Americans’ blood is now worth more than all exported corn or soy products that cover vast areas of the country’s heartland. The U.S. supplies fully 70 percent of the world’s plasma, mainly because most other countries have banned the practice on ethical and medical grounds. Exports increased by over 13 percent, to $28.6 billion, between 2016 and 2017, and the plasma market is projected to “grow radiantly,” according to one industry report. The majority goes to wealthy European countries; Germany, for example, buys 15 percent of all U.S. blood exports. China and Japan are also key customers.
It is primarily the plasma– a golden liquid that transports proteins and red and white blood cells around the body– that makes it so sought after. Donated blood is crucial in treating medical conditions such as anemia and cancer and is commonly required to perform surgeries. Pregnant women also frequently need transfusions to treat blood loss during childbirth. Like all maturing industries, a few enormous bloodthirsty companies, such as Grifols and CSL, have come to dominate the American market.
But in order to generate such enormous profits, these vampiric corporations consciously target the poorest and most desperate Americans. One study found that the majority of donors in Cleveland generate more than a third of their income from “donating” blood. The money they receive, notes Professor Kathryn Edin of Princeton University, is literally “the lifeblood of the $2 a day poor.” Professor H. Luke Schaefer of the University of Michigan, Edin’s co-author of $2 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, told MintPress News:
The massive increase in blood plasma sales is a result of an inadequate and in many places non-existent cash safety net, combined with an unstable labor market. Our experience is people need the money, that’s the primary reason people show up at plasma centers.”
Almost half of America is broke, and 58 percent of the country is living paycheck to paycheck, with savings of less than $1000. 37 million Americans go to bed hungry, including one-sixth of New Yorkers and almost half of South Bronx residents. And over half a million sleep on the streets on any given night, with many millions more in vehicles or relying on friends or family. It is in this context that millions in the red have turned to selling blood to make ends meet. In a very real sense then, these corporations are harvesting the blood of the poor, literally sucking the life out of them.
i see we've moved on to the "harvesting the blood of the poor" stage of late capitalism pic.twitter.com/ssOf8xBtUp
— Adam H. Johnson (@adamjohnsonNYC) January 14, 2017
MintPress News spoke to a number of Americans who consistently donated plasma. Some of them did not want to be fully identified. But none were under any illusions about the system and how they were being exploited.
“The centers are never in a good part of town, always somewhere they can get a never ending supply of poor people desperate for that hundred bucks a week,” noted Andrew Watkins, who sold his blood in Pittsburgh, PA for around 18 months.
The people who show up are a mix of disabled, working poor, homeless, single parents, and college students. With the exception of the college students who are looking for booze money, this is probably the easiest and most reliable income they have. Your job may fire you at any time when you’re on this level of society, but you always have blood. And selling your blood doesn’t count as a job or income when it comes to determining disability benefits, food stamps, or unemployment eligibility so it’s a source of money for the people who have absolutely nothing else.”
Rachel from Wisconsin, who donated hundreds of times over a seven-year period, also commented on the obvious socio-economic makeup of donors.
We were poor, all of us in there you could easily tell that we were on the lower ends of the income bracket. They incentivize you with bonuses and the more you donate in a month the more you’ll get paid, recruiting friends bonuses, holiday bonuses, etc.”
Keita Currier from Washington, D.C., noted how she and her husband had little choice but to continue visiting clinics in Maryland for years but resented their payment methods.
They’re predatory, the price set for your plasma is based on a whim. For example, one place I donated the first five times you get $75, then you get 20, 20, 30, 50, 25. It’s random, it doesn’t matter, but they know you are desperate and if you don’t do your $30 donation you won’t get your 50 next time. Apparently, the plasma is worth something in the hundreds, so it is not surprising that you’re screwed over.”
Zombifying America’s poor
Respondents all agreed that they were indeed being exploited, but in more ways than one. Desperate Americans are allowed to donate twice per week (104 times per year). But losing that much plasma could have serious health consequences, most of which have not been studied Professor Schaefer warns, stressing that more research is necessary. Around 70 percent of donors experience health complications. Donors have a lower protein count in their blood, putting them at greater risk of infections and liver and kidney disorders. Many regulars suffer from near-permanent fatigue and are borderline anemic. All this for an average of $30 per visit. Rachel described the terrible Catch-22 many of the working poor find themselves in:
I got turned away twice – once for being too dehydrated and once for being anemic. Being poor created a shitty paradox where I couldn’t eat, and because I couldn’t eat my iron levels weren’t high enough to allow me to donate. That was a week of a pay cut, money I desperately needed for rent and bills and meds.”
A common method of cheating in endurance sports is to inject extra blood into your system before a race, giving you a huge performance boost. But extracting it has the opposite effect, making you sluggish and tired for days. Thus, this debilitating practice is zombifying America’s poor.
The process of giving blood is not a pleasurable one. Currier noted that after constantly donating, “the bruising gets terrible…Sometimes they can’t find the vain ‘n’ shit or they insert it wrong and they have to adjust the needle underneath your skin” she said, claiming that just thinking about it freaks her out, and revealed that her husband had to temporarily stop donating as his bosses thought he was on heroin due to the track marks on his arms.
Watkins agreed. “You could always tell how long someone had been doing the job by that needle,” he recalls. “Once they’d been there a year or so, they’d have stabbed literally thousands of people and could just tap your elbow once and slide the needle into the vein with no problems. New guys would miss the vein, punch through the vein, or try to hunt for it with the needle tip, which would leave terrible bruises.”
There is also little thought for the comfort of the patients. As Watkins explained, the thermostats are always turned down to around 50-60ºF for the plasma’s sake. Once the amber-colored plasma has been extracted, your cooled blood is re-injected in a painful process that feels as if ice is being inserted into the body. “Combined with the already cold air temperatures, this was maddening,” he notes.
Thus, America’s zombie poor are left almost permanently mentally drained like heroin addicts, and with similarly bruised and punctured arms, except they are being paid for the inconvenience. But perhaps the worst thing about the experience, according to those interviewed, is the dehumanization of the process.
Donors are publicly weighed to make sure they are heavy enough. Obese people are worth more to the bloodthirsty companies as they can safely extract more plasma from them each session (while paying out the same compensation). “They definitely turn you into a product in a very literal sense,” Watkins says; “It’s deeply exploitative and a symptom of just how far gone capitalism is.”
Many centers are enormous, with multiple rows of dozens of machines working in an attempt to appease the insatiable appetite of the vampiric corporation. And there is, according to Watkins, no lack of human “victims” willing to be treated like animals in battery farms, in exchange for a few dollars: “It was an assembly line to extract liquid gold from human mines,” he notes.
Currier also highlighted the treatment of the staff and the cost-cutting measures of clinics in Maryland she visited would enact:
Usually the places are hugely understaffed which means they frequently don’t change gloves, the people are overworked, and at the minimum you’re staying there for 2-3 hours which means you have to plan a whole day around this shit only to get 20 bucks in your pocket to make it through the next few days. It’s depressing, disheartening and frankly embarrassing to have to hustle like this. I feel like shit after I donate.”
Exploitation reaches new levels
But the exploitation of humans has reached new levels in clinics on the U.S.-Mexico border. Every week, thousands of Mexicans enter the U.S. on temporary visas to sell their blood to for-profit pharmaceutical corporations. The practice is banned on health grounds in Mexico but is completely legal north of the border. According to ProPublica, there are at least 43 blood donation centers along the border that prey primarily on Mexican nationals in a legally ambiguous practice.
According to a Swiss documentary on the subject, there are precious few checks on the cleanliness of the blood these companies accept, with some donors interviewed admitting they were drug addicts. But all is sacrificed in the pursuit of dazzling profits, something donors were well aware of. Rachel from Wisconsin admitted,
I did it for the money, I think we all do it for the money, but it’s not really something you out and out say because there’s a veneer of “helping the sick” slathered over it. But I caught glimpses of what kind of industry it was on occasion through innocuous questioning. The amount of plasma drawn from one person per donation was worth upwards of $600, I never really got a clear answer on that.
Andrew from Pennsylvania agreed, noting wryly,
I know my plasma was worth thousands of dollars per donation [to others], because I’ve seen what a hospital in my city charged a hemophiliac for platelets, so the pittance that they pay is ridiculous, but there is only one buyer making offers at the human level. If you’re poor and out of other options, you’ll take $40 however you can get it. Any port in a storm.”
Michael, a social worker from Georgia who sold his blood for extra cash, was deeply scornful of the entire situation. “I’ve known quite a number of people who rely on money made by selling plasma. A lot of times it’s to cover childcare or prescriptions or something along those lines,” he said. “It’s absolutely deplorable to leverage literal blood money from people who have so few options.”
Big pharma is particularly interested in the blood of the young. One billboard campaign from Grifols intentionally targeted working-class students. “Need books? No worries. Donate Plasma” reads the headline. Teenager blood is in high demand in, of all places, Silicon Valley, where anti-aging technologies are the latest trend. One company, Ambrosia, charges $8,000 per treatment to aging tech executives, infusing them with the blood of the young, turning these individuals into bloodsuckers in more ways than one. Despite the fact that there is no clinical evidence that the practice has any beneficial effects, business is booming. One committed customer is PayPal co-founder turned Trump surrogate Peter Thiel, who is reportedly spending vast sums of money on funding anti-aging startups. Thiel claims that we have been conned by “the ideology of the inevitability of the death of every individual” and believes that his own immortality may be just around the corner, a notion that has deeply concerned academics and commentators alike.
The new and booming blood market is the perfect embodiment of the late capitalist dystopia modern America has become. The dehumanizing process of harvesting the blood of the poor to fund the quixotic immortality dreams of the super-wealthy turns the former into walking, living zombies and the latter into vampires, feasting on the blood of the young; a true American horror story worthy of Stephen King or H.P. Lovecraft. As Rachel from Wisconsin said:
It really is an industry where ‘squeezing blood from stones’ is about as literal as you can get.”
Feature photo | Graphic by Claudio Cabrera
Alan MacLeod is a MintPress Staff Writer as well as an academic and writer for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. His book, Bad News From Venezuela: Twenty Years of Fake News and Misreporting was published in April.