People Desperate for Cash Selling Their Plasma

Inside Subprime: Feb 6, 2019

By Lindsay Frankel

Selling plasma may be one of the few legitimate and legal options for cash-strapped families that are struggling to secure additional income. Many in a similar situation would otherwise turn to predatory payday loan storefronts, title lenders, and pawn shops, but these options strip desperate borrowers of even more money due to the high interest rates and fees they impose. Still, questions remain about the safety and fairness of the process of plasma donation.

Plasma, which transports blood components through the body, is in high demand. It can’t be recreated in a lab, but it’s used to develop a number of vital medications, the market for which is expected to grow rapidly. The number of plasma collection centers has more than doubled since 2005, with blood products accounting for 1.9 percent of American exports in 2016. That’s more than most produce, including soybeans.

While a number of countries have banned purchasing blood plasma, many people living in poverty in the United States depend on selling their blood plasma as a source of income. A person’s first-time visit to a collection center can gain them $50, not an insignificant amount for people struggling to pay bills or put food on the table. But is the industry exploiting poor people, or is it providing a legitimate source of cash to individuals who have few alternative options?

Heather Olsen, a researcher who has analyzed 40 year of collection center data, says plasma businesses disproportionately set up shop in poor neighborhoods. And while the plasma industry contends that donating plasma, which people can do up to twice a week, poses few health risks, some experts disagree. In a 2010 study, it was found that the blood of individuals making frequent plasma donations contained fewer proteins, which posed health risks in addition to short-term issues like fatigue and fainting.

Still, many people who donate their plasma, often known as “plassers,” appreciate the ability to receive fast cash, and some even rely on the funds as their only source of income. And medications made from plasma benefit people suffering from severe illnesses. But even though exchanging blood plasma for cash is often called a paid donation, the primary motivation for many is quick access to funds.

“It’s really important to understand that the profit motive has sometimes been shown to outweigh concern for people’s health,” said Harriet Washington, a bioethics lecturer at Columbia. “The problem with using words like ‘donors’ is that it creates the assumption of beneficence.”

And since the word “donation” doesn’t accurately capture most plassers’ intentions, are indigent people being adequately compensated? Veteran plassers make $30 for an amount of immunoglobulin that will be worth $300, according to professor Roger Kobayashi of the UCLA School of Medicine. Poverty scholar Luke Shaefer has even recommended establishing a minimum wage for plassers. “Ideally,” he said, “I’d like to have a good discussion about what a fair price is.”

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