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Radiation in a crematorium traced back to a human body via The Verge

 Rachel Becker

It wasn’t enough radiation to be alarming, but it could be a sign of an ongoing problem

A crematorium in Arizona became contaminated with radiation when workers cremated a man who had received radiation treatments for cancer right before he died, a new study reports. The findings highlight a potential safety gap for crematory workers, who might not know what’s in the body they’re cremating. 

In this case, the radiation in the crematorium wasn’t significant enough to be worrying for the crematory worker’s health, according to a study published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association. But the study also found clues that exposure to radioactive compounds from medical treatments may be an ongoing safety risk for crematory workers. 

The patient in question was a 69-year-old man with a tumor of nerve-like, hormone-producing cells in his pancreas. To treat it, doctors at the Mayo Clinic in Arizona gave the patient intravenous injections of the radioactive compound lutetium 177. Just a few days later, the patient died from the cancer at a different hospital. Five days after being injected with the radioactive lutetium, he was cremated. The Mayo Clinic team only discovered this weeks later, when they were preparing the next treatment for the patient. 

Kevin Nelson, a radiation safety officer at the Mayo Clinic, didn’t know if Arizona had any regulations for circumstances like this one. So he contacted the Arizona Bureau of Radiation Control which went in to inspect the crematorium. A sweep with a Geiger counter revealed elevated levels of radiation in the cremation unit, a vacuum filter, and the bone-crusher that pulverizes the cremains. “This wasn’t like the second-coming of Chernobyl or Fukushima, but it was higher than you would anticipate,” he says.

[…]

When they analyzed the operator’s pee, they didn’t find any lutetium 177. They found something weirder: a different radioactive material called technetium-99m that doctors use for diagnostic imaging of arteries and cancers. It was a tiny amount, but the crematory operator didn’t recall ever being dosed with the stuff by a doctor. That means it’s likely that the operator had been recently exposed to the technetium when a different patient was cremated. It could be a sign of a bigger prob

[…]

These exposures are low risk, but it’s still important to be careful, Higley says. “You want to make sure that you handle patients appropriately,” she says. “But if one slips through the cracks every once and a while it’s not going to be a big radiological event.”lem if crematory workers are exposed to small doses of radioactive materials repeatedly.

[…]

These exposures are low risk, but it’s still important to be careful, Higley says. “You want to make sure that you handle patients appropriately,” she says. “But if one slips through the cracks every once and a while it’s not going to be a big radiological event.”

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