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The Pros and Cons of Donating Plasma

Posted Jun 02 2009 10:47pm 2 Comments

Everyone knows one of these guys in college. You know, the guy who never has a job nor gets any cash from home and yet somehow manages to afford tuition and books? For me, it was my friend nicknamed - via the misguided use of voice recognition software - Barrel of Carrots. When I first met BoC, I spent a lot of time wondering how he managed to feed himself much less go skiing on an income of $0 (and no scholarship) while I was busting my butt working in a computer lab by day and waitressing at night just to be able to eat something besides Ramen. And then I helped him move. His belongings: one can of beer, a small cardboard box of clothing (with hangers still attached) and a backpack of personal items. So obviously the dude was frugal. "But how do you pay rent?" I puzzled as we made exactly one trip to his car. "You sell drugs or something?"

Giving me his characteristic grin, he answered, "I sell my plasma. Make $600 a month. Easiest money ever."

That was the first time I'd heard of selling your plasma - the yellow liquidy part of your blood packed with antibodies, protiens and other goodies - for money. It came up again tonight in an entirely different setting. While one might expect a self-professed single college slacker guy to resort to selling his bodily fluids for money, tonight's advice was brought to me courtesy of the Church Ladies.

Once a month the ladies at my church get together to learn something new, swap tips, chat and do some community service. Tonight's theme was on living frugally (with everyone bringing clothing donations for a local charity) and one of the suggestions, sandwiched between "use coupons" and "budget with cash" was "sell plasma." I almost fell off my chair. At first glance, it seemed like a bad idea to me. I mean, why am I paying good money for a gym membership and organic produce if I'm going to let someone suck my life juices out of me for $20 a pint?

I leaned over to my friend, "Crazy, right?"

"Like a fox! Where do I sign up?" she replied in all seriousness.

"Do you like needles?" I asked incredulously, thinking perhaps she just has a vampiric interest in getting poked.

"Hate needles," she answered vehemently. "LOVE money."

My friend, being generally not crazy (unless you count her inexplicable fondness for country music), made me think that maybe I'm just being closed minded.

How to Donate* Plasma
After searching around the 'net a bit, I discovered that quite a lot of not-homeless and not-druggie people make good money donating plasma. Some people consider it a part time job. But how does one do it? First you find a center near you and there are plenty of helpful internet listings to help you do so. Once there you need to show two forms of ID, scan your fingerprints and get your picture taken. Then you get a physical where you answer a bunch of questions (do you do drugs?), pee in a cup (are there drugs in your system?) and get your finger pricked (nothing to do with drugs.) You also have to do routine stuff like get weighed to determine how much plasma you can donate and get your blood pressure and pulse taken. Pass all of these and you're good to go!

Go to a little room that is and get hooked up to a machine not unlike the one from The Dark Crystal (okay I made that part up) where they extract your blood, run it through a machine to separate the blood from the plasma and then pump the blood back into you. Once finished, you get paid and free to lather, rinse, repeat twice a week for as long as you keep passing the tests.

*I love how everyone calls it "donating" plasma as if you are just doing it out of the kindness of your little blood-pumping heart. I suppose "selling" plasma sounds too gauche.

The Pros to Donating Plasma
Let's be honest, there is one pro: you get paid. Most places seem to pay 30-40$ a visit, not bad if you figure it by the hour. Added bonus - you are "donating" a vital fluid to be used for someone who has a life-threatening medical need for it.

The Cons to Donating Plasma
What I really want to know is if it negatively impacts your long-term health. Young college kids are notorious for thinking they are immortal but I can't afford that kind of mentality. From my research (read: Google), most sites will tell you there is little to no risk to your health. One company writes, "The process is designed to maintain the health of the donors because it would not make much sense for the company to decrease the health of the donors, which would reduce the amount of plasma donated and negatively impact the company." How very... practical of them.

Common reactions to donating plasma seem to be short-term and include dizziness, fainting and vomiting stemming mostly from not drinking enough water. Plasma is mostly water and in a typical donation session you lose about a half a gallon. Fatigue is also a commonly reported side effect. However, the venerable health Q&A site Go Ask Alice run by Columbia University explains that regular donations are not only not detrimental to long-term health but also provide a life-saving resource. Alice explains the risks thusly,
"About twelve percent of the subjects in the study mentioned above had to stop donating because of lowered levels of antibodies in their blood. (Antibodies are special proteins that help the body's immune system fight infection and disease.) Also, pre-menopausal women who donate often are more likely to have lower levels of hemoglobin because of the loss of blood during menstruation. A lack of this protein may make people feel weak and tired. Taking an iron supplement may help counteract this, but be sure to consult a health care provider before doing so."
Alice then also adds,
"Extensive, long-term studies have shown that frequent donation of plasma is safe. [...] One study showed that those who regularly donated blood had a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, but the explanation behind this is still unclear."
So it appears that not only is plasma donation safe but it might actually benefit you in the long run? For some reason I am still a bit leery of it. Is plasma donation a great Recessionista tactic? Or do you think it is too risky? Any of you done it?
Comments (2)
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My 40 year old son has been donating plasma for the last couple of years.  He just developed a blood clot in his leg.  He is very health conscious. He never drank alcohol, never smoked, and always exercises and eats right.

We are wondering if the clot had anything to do with donating plasma a few times a month. 

I know this is a pretty old article, but I would like to comment on this. I work at a plasma center and see many of the same people donate. Generally, they maintain good health. I also donate plasma twice a week. Fatigue is common, but a protein shake can fix that. As far as reducing the risk of cardiovascular problems, I'd say that probably comes from filtering the fat out of your blood. In other words, the plasma you're donating usually contains lipids (fats) caused by eating fatty foods. However, I'm not recommending you go eat a fatty meal then donate. As far as the blood clot goes, I highly doubt that was from donating plasma. He probably needed to take in more fluids. And lastly, the money is awesome. 

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