Hundreds of pints of blood donated in the days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks reached the end of their useful life this week - unused.
Since blood has a shelf life of only 42 days, pints donated in the overwhelming response during the days following Sept. 11 began expiring Tuesday. While some blood banks have the capability to freeze blood for later use and others sold leftover blood to research facilities or pharmaceutical companies to make drugs, a lot of blood is being discarded.
America's Blood Centers, which represents 450 donation sites around the country, says about 1 percent of the 262,000 units collected in the days after the attack will expire without getting full use.
Dr. Celso Bianco, executive vice president of America's Blood Centers, said the centers use at least one component of all blood donated, since plasma extracted before the blood expires is always used. About 20 percent of the plasma is used in transfusions and the rest goes to pharmaceutical manufacturers.
But the most valuable components of blood are red blood cells and platelets, and most that expire are incinerated. A small portion goes to laboratory controls and universities for research.
"We feel uncomfortable when we have to discard these most valuable components of blood because the donor put their arm out to help and expects it to effectively be used," Bianco said.
The American Red Cross said Friday that 4 percent of its blood collected Sept. 11 expired this week. Red Cross President Bernadine Healy, who announced Friday she will resign at the end of the year, was a big booster in the effort to collect blood for victims of the attack but her tactics put her at odds with others doing the same work. Healy told a news conference she is being forced out of her job because of policy differences with the Red Cross board of directors.
Most blood banks that aggressively sought donors in the first few days after the attacks curbed their efforts once they saw the need diminish at the disaster sites.
"It's a sad reality that the victims didn't need a lot of that blood, since most injuries were related to inhalation and things like that - not massive trauma," said Linda Levi, spokeswoman for the New York Blood Center. "At the same time it was an emotional need for people. They had an emotional compulsion to donate."
Beginning in the second week after the attacks, Bonfils Blood Center in Denver canceled mobile blood drives and reduced the amount of blood drawn to 500 units of blood per day.
"It was a difficult situation because we were trying to figure how much blood would be needed in case a similar tragedy struck our own community in Denver or other things happened throughout the rest of the nation that we would need to support," said spokeswoman Jessica Maitland. "We did make the decision to have more on hand, but we were working toward reducing the potential of having outdated blood when this week came."
From the 90 Colorado hospitals the center supplies with blood, Maitland estimated less than 200 pints of the 6,000 collected during the week of Sept. 11 would be returned to the blood collection center, which may be able to find a use for it, or may have to destroy it.
Blood bank officials are quick to emphasize that the amount of blood that expires unused will be a small fraction of that collected in the week after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
"It's extremely important not to look at this like it's blood thrown out because if more disasters had occurred that required transfusion, the worst thing in the world is to have been without," said Dr. Harvey Klein, president of the American Association of Blood Banks. "Under the circumstances, I look at this as a well thought-out insurance policy."
Klein said the donations have created a phenomenal inventory - a 10- to 11-day supply at blood banks where a one- or two-day supply is typical.
The next challenge blood banks face is getting people to continue donating blood, officials said. Many centers that turned away donors the week of the attacks are now calling up their contact information to reschedule.
"The landscape of donor recruitment has definitely changed," Levi said, "though it will be a challenge to keep it at that level."
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)