The tuna sandwiches were fresh, the cookies homemade, and a “Blood Drive Today” sign out front beckoned motorists.
But inside Montclair’s Red Cross on last month’s designated day for donations, rows of beds stood empty and workers passed the time chatting about weekend plans.
Across the country, America’s blood harvest is drying up.
Blame it on the fear of AIDS, the aging of patriotic Americans who began donating in World War II or the increasing frequency of body-piercing, tattoos and other short-term factors that temporarily prevent willing donors from giving blood.
Blood donations have been sinking steadily over the last dozen years, and those in the business are struggling to attract new donors.
“Montclair is no different than any other community. This is happening all over,” said Barbara McDonald, a New Jersey Blood Center nurse.
In 1982, before fears about tainted blood supplies were widespread, this Red Cross chapter collected 1,816 pints of blood in its 12 monthly drives. By 1989, donations had dipped to 1,447 pints. Last year, a mere 831 pints of blood were collected.
“You can’t help but think there is some correlation with when people started learning about AIDS,” McDonald said. “And doing good deeds is out of favor.”
While 8 million Americans donate 14 million pints of blood every year, they represent less than 5 percent of those healthy enough to give.
Ed Kaplan, 62, started donating when he was in the Army, but he hasn’t been able to get his 35-year-old son to give.
“He doesn’t like needles,” Kaplan said, munching on goodies after giving his 80th pint. “If I could only get him here once, he’d see it’s not painful.”
Apart from cold feet, other physical conditions - and increasingly stringent safety requirements - keep people from donating, at least temporarily. People with new tattoos or pierced ears, noses and other body parts, or who have spent more than 72 hours in jail must wait a year before giving. The wait is also a year for people who have traveled to areas with malaria; it’s three years for immigrants who arrive from those areas.
Donors also must wait if they’ve had surgery, dental work or any kind of immunization, suffered from syphilis or gonorrhea, or been exposed to hepatitis, measles, mumps or chicken pox.
Blood is perishable, good for only 42 days, so hospitals need a constant supply. Critical shortages usually occur from mid-July through Labor Day, and again in late December and early January.
Type O blood is especially valued. O-positive blood, found in 39 percent, can be transfused into anyone with positive blood types, some 86 percent of the population. O-negative blood, found in 6 percent of Americans, can be used by any patient, negative or positive.