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Cancer Drugs Pose a Risk to Health Care Workers

Posted On January 25, 2016

When considering jobs that are high risk, most individuals do not think about the health care field. While occupations like construction work, law enforcement, and similar fields tend to have more obvious hazards, however, the health care industry is still third in the nation when it comes to on the job injuries. Astonishingly, many of the threats that health care workers face are not things that the average individual would expect. Exposure to certain patient drugs, especially drugs that are designed to treat cancer, is one of those threats.

Chemotherapy is a common course of treatment for those suffering with cancer. Part of the treatment includes the use of antineoplastic agents. These agents are designed to attack individual cells and cellular structure in the patient’s body, thereby destroying cancer at its very source.

Antineoplastic agents can work in a variety of ways, but their primary function is consistently to attack cells. When given to patients who are suffering from cancer, these drugs can help prevent the reproduction of cancerous cells, which stops the cancerous tumor from growing. They also attack existing cells within a cancerous mass, which can help patients beat cancer completely.

Unfortunately, when antineoplastic agents come into contact with a healthy individual, they can be extremely dangerous. Since these drugs attack all types of cells and tissues, whether they are cancerous or not, exposure can cause serious side effects, some of which cause permanent damage.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) health care workers who are exposed to these agents suffer from injuries like a skin rash or irritation to the skin, hair loss, hearing loss, damage to the kidneys and/ or liver, lung damage, damage to the bone marrow, cardiac toxicity, infertility, birth defects or death to an unborn baby, cancer, and in some situations, fatality. Unfortunately, tracing the source of such health issues is not always easy, and many injured workers do not even realize they were ever exposed. In fact, that has been the main hurdle for safety advocates who are pushing for stricter regulations in workplaces that handle these drugs.

It is important to note that exposure to these agents and their toxic effects may not be as obvious as one might think. While, or course, nurses who administer antineoplastic agents to patients can become exposed, so can the surgical team who performs treatment on a patient who has the drugs in his or her system, the pharmacist who prepares the drugs, custodial workers who clean up spills or handle hospital laundry, and workers who handle the manufacturing, transport or receiving of these drugs.

Chemotherapy can be administered via an infusion pump or orally in pill form. Regardless of the method of administration, it is possible for health care workers and others to become exposed.

  • It is important to note that when patients are given chemotherapy treatments, the harmful agents remain in their body fluids for approximately 48 to 72 hours.
  • Exposure can occur through direct contact with the skin, or when vapors in the air are inhaled.
  • Care givers should always wear surgical gloves when handling chemotherapy drugs or any equipment used to administer them.
  • When patients use the toilet, it is advisable that they close the lid afterward and flush twice. If a bedside commode is used, it should be emptied promptly using the necessary precautions.

Studies reveal that approximately 17 percent of nurses working in outpatient clinics or facilities where chemotherapy is administered reported being exposed to antineoplastic agents. Research also suggests that workers were at a higher risk when working in facilities that were understaffed. While safety guidelines, including wearing personal protective equipment like gowns and gloves, have been issued by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, these are only recommendations and not required.

Chemotherapy drugs have been classified by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) as being “hazardous drugs”. Hazardous drugs are defined as those which are either suspected or known to cause serious health consequences like cancer, birth defects, or similar issues. Even with the alarming evidence that demonstrates the dangers of these drugs, OSHA has not regulated exposure in health care settings.

While some of the reactions that health care workers experience after exposure to chemotherapy drugs are minor, and only last a few days or weeks, others are so severe that they have a significant, and sometimes permanent impact on the victim’s ability to work, quality of life, and overall health. In many cases, these workers experience side effects that require extensive or prolonged medical treatment that can be extremely costly as well. Fortunately, health care workers who suffer from side effect due to the exposure of antineoplastic agents are often eligible to receive workers compensation benefits to help relieve some of the burden that results from the adverse effects.

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