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
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.
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Memory loss is one of the symptoms of dementia. So is wandering. Over the last five years, at least 10 people in Washington state have died after wandering away from where they live. It’s a problem that communities will have to confront as the population ages. But not all police departments are prepared for these kinds of incidents.
Wealth & Poverty | June 2013
Six nonprofit groups arose on the Bering Sea shore, and they have invested mightily in ships, real estate and processing plants. Over two decades, the groups amassed a combined net worth of $785 million," write Lee van der Voo and The New York Times' Kirk Johnson.
But the results on the ground, in rural community and economic development, have been deeply uneven, and nonexistent for many people who still gaze out to the blinking lights of the factory ships and wonder what happened. Photo Credit: Jim Wilson/The New York Times
Public Health | March 2013
As Washington state was on the cusp of finalizing new, stronger water pollution limits, Boeing and its allies intervened, all the way up Gov. Gregoire herself. Using newly released public records, InvestigateWest uncovers how business interests and their allies trumped the health of sport fishermen, tribes, and everyone else who reels in dinner from local waterways.
Wealth & Poverty | February 2013
“It was just common knowledge – when you turn 18, you’re done,” Sharayah Lane said. “After the checks stopped coming, we all went our separate ways."
End of the Line is a new series by Claudia Rowe asking what happens when teens get too old for foster care in Washington State.
Photo Credit: Jon Connell/Flickr