When you work in a crematorium you expect a certain amount of occupational hazards. Excessive heat, exhaust, even mercury in the metals added to a person’s body. Maybe even the beginning of the zombie apocalypse. But what you might not think about as a hazard would be exposure to radiation.
A 69-year-old Arizona man was treated with a radioactive compound for a tumor of nerve-like, hormone-producing cells in his pancreas. Lutetium 177. A few days later, the patient died from cancer at a different hospital. They cremated the patient five days after death. The Mayo Clinic who administered the lutetium 177 discovered the issue weeks later when preparing for the next treatment.
The Mayo Clinic then contacted the Arizona Bureau of Radiation Control who inspected the crematorium. Their Geiger counter detected elevated levels of radiation. The cremation unit, a vacuum filter, and the bone-crusher that pulverizes the cremains all showed levels of exposure. “This wasn’t like the second-coming of Chernobyl or Fukushima, but it was higher than you would anticipate,” according to the radiation safety officer from the Mayo Clinic.
Worrying for risk of exposure to the radiation, Nathan Yu, a resident physician in the Mayo Clinic’s department of radiation oncology and the lead author of the study analyzed the urine of the crematory worker.
Here’s where it gets weirder.
They found an altogether different radioactive material called technetium-99m. Doctor’s use it for diagnostic imaging of arteries and cancers. It wasn’t a significant amount except one small fact. A dose of the radioactive material was never administered to the crematory operator. It brings up a problem. Crematory workers see exposure to radioactive materials repeatedly in small doses.
When the crematory chimney vents out the materials they’re diluted, so the risk of exposure to the outside world is minimal. The concern comes for the people working inside the building. Over and over again the workers see exposure to the irradiated equipment.
There are no federal regulations for what to do with a radiation-treated body, so the laws vary from state to state. And the manufacturers of the drugs don’t provide any safety guidance for deceased patients, only living ones.
Careful handling of patients helps, but repeated exposure could cause a number of health issues.