Only in America. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Image
Amidst America’s “staggering” economic inequality comes word of a newly booming, truly macabre, literally blood-from-a-stone mode of survival for the poors: Repeatedly selling their blood plasma – for about 40 bucks a pop – to get through hard times. Today the U.S., one of the only developed countries where this sort of thing is legal, supplies 70% of the world’s plasma, making it the largest player in a highly profitable if morally sketchy $28-billion-plus global industry. Since 2005, the number of blood-plasma collection centers in this country has doubled to over 800, and blood now makes up over 2% of all U.S. exports, more than all our heartland’s corn or soy products.
Like most other industries, the harvesting of blood for profit is dominated by a few massive companies, in this case pharmaceuticals, both American and multinational, including Grifols and CSL. They use the plasma – the golden fluid of human blood that moves proteins and red and white blood cells around the body – for a broad array of purposes. They develop new, hugely expensive, plasma-derived therapies and medications; they send it to wealthy European countries, along with China and Japan, to be used in surgery or to treat anemia, cancer, rare or chronic diseases; they increasingly use it in new, pricey anti-aging technologies, most popular in Silicon Valley, aimed at allowing the uber-rich the alluring illusion of immortality. Feeding one of America’s few flourishing industries are, as usual, the poor.
“What is the blood of a poor person worth?” asks one story on the trend. The answer, in a harsh time of stagnant wages and soaring homelessness when over 100 million Americans struggle to meet basic needs: Evidently just enough to endure the humiliation of selling your blood to survive. In 2014, 32.6 million people in need, three times more than ten years before, donated plasma. Many derive a third of their income that way: Unlike other (civilized) countries that limit visits due to health concerns, the U.S. allows up to two donations a week, every week, if you’re desperate enough to endure the unsanitary conditions, arbitrary payments, public weigh-ins, long delays, repeated bruising and likely lethargy, infection risk and cognitive impairment – what one horrified observer called “an assembly line to extract liquid gold from human mines” – for a lousy $30 to $50 per visit.
Because this is dystopian capitalism, there are incentives – special promotions, bonus payouts, rewards programs – if you still have qualms. There are also cannily targeted populations: Along the southern border, there are over 40 donation centers preying primarily on Mexican nationals resigned to being exploited by pharmaceutical companies in a country that will gladly give them a temporary visa to sell their blood but won’t let them make a life here. According to ProPublica, most U.S centers see about 1,000 donors a week; the border centers see over 2,300 hungry people willing to take blood money. The border also boasts the highest donor frequency, with many Mexicans donating 75 times or more per year. Nationally, industry reports say the plasma market is projected to “grow radiantly.” Because of course it is.