Cancer patient's treatment leaves radiation contamination in crematory

Coffin burning in crematory.

(CNN)Radioactivity was detected on the oven, vacuum filter and bone crusher of an Arizona crematory where a deceased man who'd received radiation therapy was incinerated, according to a new case report. Worse still, a radioactive compound unrelated to the dead man was detected in the urine of an employee there.

"It is plausible that the crematory operator was exposed while cremating other human remains," Dr. Nathan Yu of the Department of Radiation Oncology at the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix and his co-authors wrote in the case report, published Tuesday in JAMA.

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Radioactive compounds are used in some medical procedures to diagnose and treat disease. PET scans, for example, use a radioactive dye to help doctors see tissues and organs, and some cancer treatments use radioactive compounds to target tumor cells.
    The case report tells of a 69-year-old man with a pancreatic tumor who was treated with a nuclear medicine at an Arizona hospital in 2017. He died days later and was cremated five days post-treatment.
    On learning of the patient's death, a safety officer from the hospital's radiation department notified the crematorium and, one-month post-treatment, surveyed the equipment using a Geiger counter. A urine sample from an employee was also analyzed.
    Incineration "volatilizes" radiopharmaceuticals in a dead body, and the radioactive contamination can be "inhaled by workers (or released into the adjacent community) and result in greater exposure than from a living patient," Yu and his co-authors wrote.
    The Geiger counter picked up a range of radioactivity (primarily the isotope contained in the medicine given to the patient) on equipment in the crematorium: the oven, vacuum filter and bone crusher.
    A different isotope was detected in the employee's urine. Because he'd never undergone a medical procedure using radiopharmaceuticals, the researchers believe that he inhaled the radioactive contaminant while incinerating other bodies.