Lifesaving Drugs, Deadly Consequences
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Secondhand chemo – like secondhand smoking – is an apt description for disease that occurs after chronic exposure to low doses of a drug intended for someone else. And like secondhand tobacco exposure, it can have deadly consequences.
An InvestigateWest investigation has found that the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration does not regulate exposure to chemotherapy in the workplace, despite multiple studies documenting ongoing contamination and exposures and their potentially deadly consequences for human health. Studies as far back as the 1970s have linked increased rates of certain cancers to nurses and physicians. Occupational health experts believe that’s because when nurses, pharmacists,technicians and increasingly, even veterinarians, mix and deliver the drugs, accidental spills, sprays and punctures put them in close, frequent contact with hazardous drugs. These are drugs that can save lives of cancer patients, but ironically, are also human carcinogens themselves.
A just-completed study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, 10 years in the making and the largest to date, confirms that chemo continues to contaminate the work spaces where it’s used, and in some cases is still being found in the urine of those who handle it, despite knowledge of safety precautions.
Read the story of Sue Crump, a Seattle area pharmacist who died at age 55 of cancer she believed was linked to her years as a pharmacist mixing chemotherapy in hospital settings. Her story is just one uncovered in a year-long investigation by InvestigateWest’s Carol Smith that drew upon early studies showing links between workplace exposures and later disease, slow recognition that the drugs have long lasting and even lethal consequences, and a reluctance to meet the problem with strict workplace safety regulation, at the federal and state levels.
While safety awareness has improved, the most basic precautions remain recommendations only, even as federal scientists and occupational health experts have pushed for more regulation in the work place.
Most alarmingly, the toxic drugs that some pharmacists and nurses believe caused cancer years later are moving out into home health care, veterinary clinics and non-hospital clinic settings where the deadly consequences of exposure may be even less recognized.
This images used in this presentation of Sue Crump and her daughter Chelsea were made by photographer Paul Joseph Brown for InvestigateWest. Photographer Mike Kane shot the video of Sue and her family for Investigate West. The video/slide show was produced by Daniel Gawlowski of The Seattle Times.
Sue Crump braced as the chemo drugs dripped into her body. She knew treatment would be rough. She had seen its signature countless times in the ravaged bodies and hopeful faces of cancer patients in hospitals where she had spent 23 years mixing chemo as a pharmacist.
At the same time, though, she wondered whether those same drugs – experienced as a form of “secondhand chemo” -- may have caused her own cancer.
Chemo is poison by design. It’s descended from deadly mustard gas first used against soldiers in World War I. Now it’s deployed to stop the advance of cancer.
In the United States, there’s a lot of discussion about the difficulties of requiring hospitals and clinics to prove they are not contaminating their workers with toxic drugs.
But some other countries are already doing that.
Oncology pharmacist Bruce Harrison died at age 59 of a rare form of cancer. He was one of the authors of the strictest set of guidelines yet for healthcare worker safety, guidelines that had they been mandatory may have saved his life.
A diagnosis of thyroid cancer at age 35 changed vet Brett Cordes’ life. Now he’s a safety crusader warning other vets that the stuff they’re using to save our pets’ lives could be threatening their own.
Luci Power was one of the first pharmacists in the United States to pressure her employer to take seriously warnings about chemo handling coming out of Europe in the early 1980s. Read how one activist changed a workplace.
Hospital pharmacist Karen Lewis once had a cavalier attitude toward gloving and face masks, believing a little exposure wouldn’t harm her. Four years after being diagnosed with a pre-cancerous blood disease, she knows differently.
We asked what the agency charged with protecting American workers is doing to protect healthcare workers on the job.
Extended Video from KCTS Connects
Sue Crump, In Her Own Words
Extended Interview with Seth Eisenberg, RN
Behind the Scenes at Swedish Hospital
Minimum Wage | August 2014
"Everyone is aware that passing a $15 an hour minimum wage was historic," an advisor to Mayor Ed Murray and the Seattle City Council told InvestigateWest. "But if we cannot enforce that, we haven't accomplished much."
Based on a review of more than 20,000 wage theft complaints, hundreds of pages of reports and more than a dozen interviews, "Stolen Wages" shines a light on the dark world of pay violations in Seattle and across Washington.
Infrastructure | May 2014
Party politics have thwarted bridge safety improvements, and an investigation drags on to decide how the trucking company, its escort car and the state may share blame. Yet a new mapping tool for truckers may offer hope, Jason Alcorn reports.
Infrastructure | May 2014
Portable, modular or relocatable classrooms — whatever you call them — are a necessity for cash-strapped schools.
But many portables become permanent fixtures, in place for decades at a time. Costly and insufficient, these aging structures burden the grid, frustrate teachers and administrators and compromise student health.
Environment | April 2014
Energizing our world with wood sounds so natural. And it has quickly become a multibillion-dollar industry as governments including British Columbia and the European Union turn to biomass to replace dirty old coal. Yet what we found when we dug into the coal-vs.-wood debate will surprise you.
Public Health | April 2014
We update our 2013 series on Washington’s estimated fish consumption rate with news of a private meeting where Gov. Jay Inslee and his advisers wrestled with how much to protect business versus consumers when it comes to water pollution in the fish we eat.
Consumer Safety | April 2014
Manufacturers put a warning sticker on every ATV sold: The vehicles aren't meant for roads. But a push to allow just that is rolling out across the country. Washington and three other states passed new laws in 2013, among 22 states to allow or expand ATV access to roads since 2004.
Wealth & Poverty | December 2013
It's the unexpected catch in catch-share programs: A federal program that was supposed to help preserve and enhance the fishing economy in Kake, Alaska, has instead helped cause a severe decline. Meanwhile, 50 miles southeast, the town of Petersburg is booming.
The third part in our trilogy of fish stories examines the consequences catch-share policy where it was born, even as the model has been established in 14 other U.S. fisheries, encompassing dozens of species ranging from New England scallops to Pacific sole.
Foster Care | November 2013
State law now allows more kids to stay in foster care for an extra three years — until age 21. But many either refuse the help, or fail to qualify for it.
An investigation by KUOW in collaboration with InvestigateWest looks at why this transition to adulthood is trickier than expected – for foster kids, and for the state.
Public Health | September 2013
Of the roughly 50,000 kids who will attend Seattle schools this fall, nearly 2,000 will hit the books in classrooms within 500 feet of Interstate 5, InvestigateWest has found. This despite a body of evidence dating back decades that highway air pollution can cause lifelong respiratory problems and asthma attacks and boost school absenteeism.
From Seattle to Spokane, what can be done to make sure schools are healthy places for kids?
Photo: John Marshall JHS, 1963. SPSA 108-97.