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Blood money: Saving lives or exploiting you? Health, ethical questions about donors selling plasma

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — An Action News Jax investigation found out why plasma is so valuable but also how there are growing health and ethical concerns with donors selling it, raising the question does “blood money” save lives or exploit you?

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Pete Forman is trying to keep up with the rising costs of rent, groceries, and electric bills by selling his plasma for cash.

“I can use the funds,” said Forman who is goes to a nondescript donation center in Jacksonville on a regular basis. “You get about $120 a week not bad?,” asked Action News Jax Ben Becker. “Yeah, I drive a truck, so I need gas, it helps out.”

Plasma is the liquid portion of your blood that delivers water and vital nutrients to all the cells in your body, but these types of donations are different than blood drives that offer you a t-shirt or a gift card.

In this case, you get paid - a lot.

There are nine plasma donation centers in Jacksonville – and nearly a thousand around the country – many in lower socioeconomic areas. Donors can sometimes earn up to eight times Florida’s minimum wage of $12 per hour.

The major players are BioLife, CSL Plasma, and Octapharma - each is willing to pay new donors $500-$850 during their first month and then $50-$75 per trip – twice a week, 104 times a year adding up to about $8,000.

“There’s a lot of the controversy around plasma versus blood donation is that it preys on on the poor,” said Dr. Judson Edwards who is the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Blood Service Economics and studies incentives for plasma donation. “It’s definitely a high profit-making situation.”

Plasma is part of a global, multibillion-dollar business.

The United States is one of only five countries in the world that allow plasma donors to get paid. The others are Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, and Hungary.

According to the Niskanen Center, the U.S. supplies 70% of the world’s plasma which is about $3.3 billion or 2.69% of U.S. exports. The Census Bureau says that’s more than soybeans, corn, aircraft parts, and gold.

Hospitals are prohibited from paying for plasma, but donation centers are not.

Pharmaceutical companies buy plasma to make various treatments for ailments, including bleeding disorders, immune deficiencies, and HIV.

“This is good news for so many of these patients who rely on these therapies,” says Anita Brikman who is the CEO of the Plasma Protein Therapeutic Association, which supports paid donations. She says donors receive physicals and the plasma is screened and maintains they don’t target the poor.

“Our centers are looking for people willing to donate irrespective of socioeconomic status,” said Brikman.

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The trade group commissioned a health study that concluded no “statistically significant differences” for those who donate plasma regularly and those who do not.

Health agencies are split on how often you should donate plasma.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says you can give plasma twice in any 7 days, but no more than once in 48 hours. 104 times in all.

However, the American Red Cross recommends donating only once every 28 days, up to 13 times per year.

It’s because donating too much may negatively impact the quality of the plasma and lead to you having higher levels of iron deficiency and lower hemoglobin levels.

“Do you wish you didn’t have to do it?” Becker asked Kreem Johnson who is a regular donor. “You are absolutely right, I do I wish jobs paid more,” said Johnson.

There are numerous other ways you can sell your body for science.

A surrogate mother can make $24,000-$45,000.

Women can also sell their eggs - that can pay $8,000-$14,000 but there are potential health complications.

Men can sell sperm, but the market price is only $35-$125.

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