Radioactivity in the Retort

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Two articles were recently written about an article that was published by Dr. Nathan Yu and colleagues in the Journal of American Medicine (JAMA) on February 26.  The JAMA article was a case report dealing with a 69 year old man with pancreatic cancer who was treated with nuclear medicine at an Arizona hospital in 2017.  He died days later and was cremated.

The JAMA article which you can read about here from CNN and here from LiveScience, dealt with a radiation sweep of the crematory and the crematory worker days after the episode.  According to the CNN article, “Radioactivity was detected on the oven, vacuum filter, and bone crusher of an Arizona crematory where a deceased man who’d received radiation therapy was incinerated. . . . .a radioactive compound unrelated to the dead man was detected in the urine of an employee there.”

Because the employee had never undergone a medical procedure using radiopharmaceuticals, researchers believe that he inhaled the radioactive conaminant while incinerating other bodies, according to the CNN article.  Again, according to the CNN article, Dr. Yu believes that more studies are needed to understand the extent of radiation contamination at crematoriums and possible health hazards for workers.

According to the LiveScience article, “the researchers found a maximum Geiger-counter reading of 25,000 counts per minute on the crematory equipment. . . . more than is considered safe but very far below the levels that would quickly cause radiation poisoning.”

Dr. Daniel Appelbaum, Chief of Nuclear Medicine at the University of Chicago Medical Center was quoted in the CNN article.  He stated, “although radiotherapies have been around for decades, there are very recently becoming much more common. . . . Since this is only going to become more of a common issue going forward, we need to think about ways to identify and notify crematoriums of the potential risk and evaluate the amount of possible postmortem radioactive contamination.”

Here is another story on the subject from UPI.

Funeral Director Daily take:  These articles just hopped off the page at me.  I immediately thought, “What else do funeral home/crematory owners need to be aware of?  I had never even thought of this possibility, but I guess that the threat is out there because every time you get an x-ray, even in the dentist office, the technician is positioned behind a shield.

As an employer you have to take notice of some of these issues that will come before employers now and in the future. . . formaldehyde exposure, prep room sanitation, and now potential radiation exposure in crematories.  My guess is that OSHA will also see this article from the JAMA and this is not the last time funeral home owners will hear about it.



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  1. Fascinating article. Thanks! The ramifications of radiactivity from medical procedures extend to the grave and beyond. The benefits of nuclear medicine are enormous, often saving, improving or extending lives but it comes at some cost. Will funeral homes be able to decline or be prevented by federal or state law from offering creamatory services to certain clients because of the bio-hazard? Will families be allowed to carry around radioactive creamated remains. Will they even want to if they know? Will funeral homes be required to determine if a deceased person is safe to creamate? Will burial in a casket and concrete vault 6 feet in the dirt be allowed? What to do with a deceased person who is “radioactive”? Technology offers solutions to medical problems and also presents new issues/considerations.

  2. I found this article very interesting and felt qualified to comment. I happen to be both a funeral director / embalmer AND a nuclear medicine technologist. I hold all the required licenses and board exam requirements in both fields. The article both provided and failed to provide key information required to determine if there is anything to be concerned about. Did the patient undergo a DIAGNOSTIC or THERAPEUTIC procedure involving radionuclides? We were given the counts per minute detected, but not the source element. Spectroscopic analysis was done because that is the only way they would know that the employee who had radioactive urine had a source DIFFERENT from the deceased. Those who work in healthcare with radioctive patients do not cover themselves in lead while they walk around the patient who is radioactive. And do not confuse a technologist stepping behind a shield during an xray with this situation. They are NOT the same. Radionuclides used in ANY diagnostic procedure will naturally decay to no detectable radioactivity in a number of minutes to days. THERAPEUTIC radionuclides on the other hand, will take from days to decades to decay even a single half life. If the article had mentioned Radium seeds. Or Cesium. Or at least any element, I would have known the potential danger involved. Radionuclides with half lives of 8, 32, or even 1000 years ARE concerning because they DO NOT GO AWAY. They will contaminate the retort, processor, employees, AND, lets not forget, the families who place an urn with cremains within their homes. As far as OSHA weighing in on this, the Funeral profession need not be alarmed. OSHA is already very familiar with worker / radiation relationships. Crematory operators may want to be proactive, however. Just as they are concerned about putting a pacemaker in a retort, they may want to check for radioactivity. A Geiger counter is not that expensive and requires little skill to pass it over a body. Just like a metal detector. When it starts chirping, put it down, and pick up the phone.

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