On the day Khoa Hoang Nguyen was arraigned in D.C. Superior Court with paying people $30 to draw samples of their blood, several dozen residents in the Southwest neighborhood – bordering National Stadium, where he’d set up shop, lamented his arrest as a loss of steady income. In speaking with ACUMEN, several regular blood suppliers exposed a failsafe to obtaining quick money among the city’s growing poor population – selling blood and plasma.
The U.S. supplies 94 percent of the paid plasma used around the world. And nearly 80 percent of the plasma centers in the U.S. are located in America’s poorest neighborhoods. And while pharmaceutical companies, including Octapharma and Biomat, report profits in the billions each year, the advent of informal start-ups and contracted services – such as Nguyen’s office in an abandoned housing project, may signal an increased level of desperation among the poor.
“I’ve been giving blood and – and now plasma for years to help ends meet,” Marcella Eccles, known in the neighborhood as ‘Marcie’ told ACUMEN. “When I hit rough times, no one would hire me to do anything including cleaning toilets; I have to eat. So, the money is quick and it’s honest.”
Eccles, who said she initially gave blood while in college through a state blood services clinic, admits that now, thirty years later and fighting substances abuse, she gives blood to whomever takes it – even in an abandoned building. As a student, she said she earned $70 a week selling blood, which netted her nearly $1500 during a 16-week semester.
“Just as I wouldn’t call home to ask my parents for money, I won’t stand around now begging money from working people. I do have something of value that I can sell on a regular basis and if I am a burden, it is only to myself. When I am able to do better, I will,” Eccles told ACUMEN.
Eccles is not alone. A 2016 report sponsored by U.S. News and World Reports found that a striking number of Americans living on extremely small incomes – roughly $2 per day – rely heavily on blood donations to survive. As of early 2011, 1.5 million households (with roughly 3 million children) were surviving on cash incomes of no more than $2 per person, per day, during any given month.
According to Sophia Johnson, a Rutgers-based toxicologist, the nearly $30-billion a year plasma business often uses the poor and disadvantaged for steady blood supplies, often utilizing the fluids within plasma to manufacture drugs that treat immune disorders, protein disorders, shock, severe burns and other maladies. The problem, Johnson said, is that as financial hardships grow, some may be tempted to sidestep safety and health protocols – endangering the nation’s most financially vulnerable Americans.
“There are occupational health and safety guidelines to follow when drawing blood. These guidelines protect the patient, phlebotomist, and the blood sample. Many issues come to my mind when hearing of an individual drawing blood in an abandoned facility,” Johnson told ACUMEN. “To ensure the safety of the patient, blood is drawn by a trained professional in a sanitary environment. Unsanitary environments increase one's exposure to germs and bacteria, which worsen pre-existing health conditions.”
Further, among the tips the American Red Cross provides to those giving blood, several suggestions, including maintaining a healthy iron level, getting a good night's sleep, and drinking plenty of water and non-alcoholic beverages before donations, could be near-to-impossible for impoverished donators to follow.
“Most of us on the street make it off one meal a day – a slice of pizza or something from the Chinese carryout, and we sleep rough,” Eccles told ACUMEN. “I’ve been told that giving blood when you’re not eating and sleeping good can have a negative impact, but so far, it’s been fine. Our issue is where do we find another $30 with this spot closed up.”
The variety of survival strategies used by the $2-a-day poor mimic many of those generated by families across the U.S. during economic downturns which have included selling urine to leather tanners, bartering and trading services, and resorting to money-making schemes.
And though the Food and Drug Administration considers it safe to donate twice a week, with a minimum of 48 hours between donation times, Johnson said she worries that blood donations taken informally or by contractors, could be used to the detriment of those giving it.
“What is the blood being used for and why would someone set up services in an abandoned building? For generations, there have been rumors and speculation about experiments on poor, Black people – yet, no real suspicion has been raised over the lack of medical oversight,” Johnson said. “We have to do a better job of caring for the least among us so that they do not fall victim to unscrupulous health and medical practices. Someone’s life is worth more than $30.”