A new case study has revealed that radioactivity was detected in the oven, vacuum filter and bone crusher of an Arizona crematory where a deceased man, who earlier received radiation therapy, was incinerated in 2017.
The report published by the Jama Network earlier this week refers to the case involving a 69-year-old male patient with a pancreatic tumour who was treated with the nuclear medicine lutetium-177 two years ago.
Shortly after the patient began treatment, his health condition worsened and he was checked into a hospital, which was separate from where he was receiving radiation therapy.
When he finally died, the hospital did not notify the crematorium about the patient’s radiation treatment and five days later, he was cremated at the facility.
In this context, Nathan Yu of the Department of Radiation Oncology at the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix and his co-authors wrote in the case report that “it is plausible that the crematory operator was exposed while cremating other human remains”.
The researchers also pointed out that the case illustrates that radiopharmaceuticals “present a unique and often overlooked postmortem safety challenge”.
“Cremating an exposed patient volatilises the radiopharmaceutical, which can then be inhaled by workers (or released into the adjacent community) and result in greater exposure than from a living patient”, they warned.
One of the study’s authors, Kevin Nelson, went even further by cautioning of a serious risk related to cremating patients exposed to radiation treatment.
“This wasn't like the second-coming of Chernobyl or Fukushima, but it was higher than you would anticipate," Nelson claimed.
The protocols should include "postmortem management, such as evaluating radioactivity in deceased patients prior to cremation and standardising notification of crematoriums."