From the February 28, 2019, issue of the Memorial Business Journal
A research letter published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association has reported an incident of radiation contamination at an Arizona crematory, where a 69-year-old man with a pancreatic tumor was cremated following his treatment with an intravenous radioactive drug. Radioactive compounds, known as radiopharmaceuticals, are used in various nuclear medicine procedures to diagnose and treat disease.
An examination of the crematory a month after cremating the man found evidence of radiation contamination on equipment, including the retort, vacuum filter and other processing equipment.
The report also said that a trace amount of a different type of radioactive compound, one not used in treating the man with the pancreatic tumor, was detected in the crematory operator’s urine, suggesting that he may have been possibly exposed to that compound while cremating other human remains.
A statement released by NFDA said that given the widespread use of radiation in nuclear medicine (diagnosis and treatment) and radiation oncology (cancer treatment) procedures in the United States and around the world, it is likely that crematory operators have cared for the bodies of individuals who have undergone such treatments.
“One of the tenets of NFDA’s Certified Crematory Operator Program is to ensure that the crematory operator has the necessary information about the decedent to conduct the cremation safely. Crematory operators are expected to be informed whether there are any devices, including pacemakers, radioactive implants or other implanted devices, that may possibly require special precautions when placed in a cremation chamber and subjected to heat.”
The NFDA statement goes on to say that the JAMA article reports on a single case involving the cremation of an individual who had been treated with a particular radionuclide for a pancreatic tumor, died a short time after treatment and was cremated five days after treatment.
“Prior to the cremation, no notification of cancer treatment was provided to the crematory operator, including whether safety precautions were advisable under the circumstances. NFDA supports further study of this issue and welcomes recommendations on how the health and safety of crematory staff and the community can be protected to the greatest degree possible, including, as the research letter suggests, by evaluating radioactivity in deceased patients prior to cremation and by ensuring that crematory operators receive notification sufficient to employ the proper safety precautions, if needed,” said NFDA.
According to JAMA, the most recently reported data found that 18.6 million nuclear medicine procedures were performed in the United States, with nearly 40 million performed worldwide.
The NFDA Board of Directors will address this topic at its April meeting. This is a developing story, and NFDA will update this report as it develops.