While Saving Lives, Chemotherapy can Cause Cancer, Birth Defects and Miscarriages in OthersHundreds of drugs are used to fight cancer. The most powerful are cytotoxic (cell killing). They kill cancer cells anywhere in the body. Unfortunately, they also kill fast-growing healthy cells anywhere in the body. Side effects include hair loss and susceptibility to infection. The patient can even develop other cancers that don’t appear for several years. For example, cyclophosphamide, which is used to treat breast cancer, can cause bladder cancer or myelodysplastic syndrome (pre-leukemia) in the patient several years later.
Among these hundreds of drugs, roughly two dozen — cyclophosphamide, doxorubicin, 5-FU and etoposide among them — present an additional danger. They are excreted in active form, in the few days after each chemotherapy infusion. This means that during the Danger Period, the patient’s sweat, saliva, vomit, urine and feces contain huge quantities of dangerous chemicals. Anyone who touches these contaminated fluids — cleaning the toilet, helping the patient as they vomit, or with any other task caregivers selflessly perform — can absorb dangerous amounts of the active cytotoxic drug.
Once inside the caregiver’s body, the cytotoxic drug will attack any fast growing cell, causing cancer or other damage. If the caregiver is pregnant, their baby can develop birth defects, undetectable for years, or even die. Babies and children, in particular, are at huge risk because so many of their cells are rapidly growing.
How Drug Producers and Hospitals Protect their Employees
The drug producers and hospitals understand the extreme dangers accidental exposure to cytotoxic drugs (also called antineoplastic) pose to their employees. Every step along the way from drug production through injection into the patient is carefully controlled to minimize the risk to the employees. For this reason organizations responsible for employee protections (OSHA, NIOSH, Joint Commission and others) recommend strict employee protective guidelines.
Cytotoxic Drug Dispensing
Nursing Staff Recommended Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
Dangers Continue Even After Drugs are Injected into Patient
The danger continues even after the cytotoxic drugs have been injected into the patient. The warnings about the danger of cytotoxic drugs in the patients’ waste were first provided by OSHA to hospitals and their employees in 1986 and have been repeatedly updated. As stated by OSHA (http://www.osha.gov/dts/osta/otm/otm_vi/otm_vi_2.html) “Many HD's [cytotoxic chemotherapy drugs] are known human carcinogens, for which there is no safe level of exposure”.
No Protection for Families and Caregivers
Unfortunately, patients and their families do not receive the same warnings. Instead when a chemotherapy patient returns home after infusion (85% of infusions given to out-patients), the family members and other caregivers are exposed to extreme danger. They have no information or protective equipment and will not know for months or years if they have been injured. These injuries could include immune dysfunction, cancer or if pregnant, birth defects and miscarriage.