Radioactive materials contaminated a crematorium in Arizona when workers cremated the remains of a man who received radiation treatment for cancer prior to his death.
In a case study published in the Journal of The American Medical Association, Nathan Yu of the Department of Radiation Oncology at the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix and colleagues said radioactivity was detected on the vacuum filter, oven, and bone crusher of the crematory.
Radioactive compound unrelated to the dead man was also detected in the urine of an employee. Yu said the crematory workers may have been exposed while cremating other human remains.
Yu and colleagues think the worker was not likely exposed to a dangerous dose of radiation but the findings raise questions about how often radioactive bodies get incinerated, and how frequently crematory workers get exposed to radiation.
“Further studies are needed to evaluate the frequency and scope of radiation contamination and health effects of repeated or long-term exposure of employees in crematoriums in the United States, especially as the cremation rate was greater than 50% in 2017,” Yu and colleagues wrote.
“Future safety protocols for radiopharmaceuticals should include postmortem management, such as evaluating radioactivity in deceased patients prior to cremation and standardizing notification of crematoriums.”
The case involved a 69-year-old male cancer patient who received intravenous radioactive treatment called lutetium-177 dotatate in 2017 for a tumor in his pancreas. Two days after beginning the treatment, the patient became more ill. He checked in and died in a hospital different from where he was receiving radiation therapy.
The hospital where the man died did not notify the crematory about the radiation treatment.
After learning about the case, the researchers asked the Arizona Bureau of Radiation Control if there are regulations or protocols for events such as this. They learned that there are no federal regulations on what to do with the bodies of patients who were exposed to radioactive materials for medical diagnosis or treatment.
Fortunately, the researchers only found a maximum Geiger-counter reading of 25,000 counts per minute on the crematory equipment. This translates to an exposure of 7.5 millirem per hour for anyone in direct contact with the equipment. This is far below the levels that could quickly cause radiation poisoning.
Lutetium 177 also has a short range and short half-life, so any dangerous effects would not have spread far or lasted long.