Doctors in Arizona injected a 69-year-old man with a drug designed to shrink tumors growing in his body. The drug was radioactive. Sadly, the medicine didn't save him, and two days later, he died. Five days after that, his body was cremated, spreading radioactive particles all over the crematorium.
That cremation, which occurred without the knowledge of the doctors who had injected the radioactive material into the man's body, posed a danger to crematory workers. And researchers say it's a problem that may be more common than anyone has yet realized.
In a short paper published today (Feb. 26) in the journal JAMA, the researchers reported the results of a thorough investigation of the crematorium and the worker who dealt with the radioactive remains. The researchers found significant radiation left on the crematory equipment, including the "oven, vacuum filter and bone crusher."
A sample of the crematorium worker's urine also turned up trace amounts of radioactive material. The researchers wrote that the worker probably didn't receive a dangerous dose of radiation, but they added that the questions of how often radioactive bodies get incinerated or how frequently crematory workers are exposed remain unanswered. (In other words, a one-time exposure is less dangerous than repeated exposure to radiation.) [5 Everyday Things that Are Radioactive]
The researchers found a maximum Geiger-counter reading of 25,000 counts per minute on the crematory equipment. That translates to an exposure of 7.5 millirem per hour for someone in direct contact with the equipment — much more than is considered safe but very far below the levels that would quickly cause radiation poisoning.
The good news is, the researchers wrote, that lutetium 177 (the radioactive element in the injection) has a short range and short half-life. That means that any dangerous effects wouldn't have spread far or lasted very long.
But in the future, the researchers argued, safety protocols for radioactive medicines should take into account the possibility of death and cremation so as to protect the public. With the exception of Florida, most states — including Arizona — lack rules to prevent cremation of radioactive remains.
Originally published on Live Science.