An Infusion of Chemotherapy
Credit: Flickr photo by muffet

It's widely known that chemotherapy causes serious side effects, as many of these drugs are highly toxic. But few people are aware of the dangers of second-hand chemo.

Cancer clinics are now extremely cautious. Pharmacists and nurses usually wear bio-hazard suits when mixing or dispensing chemotherapy. Spills are taken very seriously, as it's known that chemo residue lingers, long after it's supposedly been cleaned up.

However, much less attention is given to the fact that patients may inadvertently expose family  and friends to these poisonous chemicals. After the drugs are infused, they are present, in large and dangerous quantities, a person's system.

Anyone who comes into contact with their body fluids, or happens to shake their sweaty hand, could receive an unintended dose of doxorubicin or 5-fluorouracil, two common chemotherapy drugs.

Also, it's becoming increasingly common for chemo to be given at home, rather than at clinic. According to one study, this is where accidental spills are highly likely to happen.

The problem of "second-hand" chemo is widely known among medical professionals. But, usually, family members have no idea they could be putting their own health at risk, for instance, if they change a soiled bed or mop up vomit.

The American Cancer Society Warning

On its website, the American Cancer Society has issued a warning. Actually, it is a very extensive list on how to avoid unintentional exposure. Although this organization is heavily invested in the mainstream approach of treating cancer with poisonous chemicals, it clearly states that many of these drugs "are considered hazardous to healthy  people."

Chemotherapy is designed to kill rapidly dividing cells. But it doesn't discriminate, because they destroy malignant as well as normal cells. Among their many side effects is alteration in the structure of the DNA. This could cause birth defects if a pregnant woman came in contact with these chemicals.

The long list of precautions recommended by the ACS are sobering, in light of the fact that so many people are now walking around with these toxic substances coursing through their bodies.

The first 48-hours after treatment is when other people are most at risk, according to the ACS. However, some European health experts believe this period is longer, lasting as much as a week after the drugs are injected.

Specific Recommendations to Avoid Exposure

The drugs are so toxic that it's possible for someone else to be exposed just by sharing a bathroom with a patient. That's the why ACS tells chemotherapy recipients to use separate facilities, if possible.

Patients are urged to flush the toilet twice, when they need to relieve themselves. This advice is designed to reduce likelihood that water laced with chemicals will splash on someone else.

Because the bodily fluids of chemotherapy patients contain a high level of toxins, male cancer patients are also supposed to urinate sitting, instead of standing.

Sharing eating utensils is also a bad idea because of the risk of chemotherapy drugs being present in the saliva.

Many Chemotherapy Drugs are Highly Carcinogenic
Credit: Flicrk photo by zigazou76

Chemo Residue in the Environment

If you enter a hospital, it's likely you'll encounter at least miniscule amounts of chemo residue. One executive of a major medical center noted that, despite valiant efforts to contain these drugs in the cancer ward, they've managed to escape. In his facility, they were found in the elevator and on computer keyboards.

Inspections of cancer clinics routinely find drug residue on counter surfaces, even though ventilators have been installed and accidental spills are immediately cleaned.

It's unlikely that family members take these same safety measures, especially since most of them don't know about the dangers of second-hand chemo.

However, one Rhode Island-based company is trying to sound the alarm. Pharma-Cycle notes that is is attempting to stop the "spread of cancer and birth defects." (Chemotherapy drugs are highly carcinogenic.)

The company, which sells special kits to collect and safely dispose of urine and feces from chemotherapy patients, claims that once a cancer patient leaves a clinic, everyone he or she comes into contact with is potentially exposed to the drugs.

These kits not only protects loved ones from harm, but also protect the environment, according to Pharma-Cycle literature. The company notes that patients given cyto-toxic drugs will be excreting "huge amounts" in the days following an infusion.


Should Bodily Fluids be Treated as Hazardous Waste?
Credit: Flickr photo by Editor B

Pushing for Change

Pharma-Cycle notes that patients, and especially family members, are not warned about the dangers of chemotherapy drugs. These agents, according to company, which was founded by a chemist, can even pass through the skin. So someone who kisses a recently treated cancer patient could receive an unintended dose of toxic pharmaceuticals.

These drugs are biologically active even after they are secreted, according to Pharma-Cycle. This makes them even more dangerous than normal poisons, because they are designed to react to destroy fast-growing cells in the human body.

Pharma-Cycle has been at the forefront of pushing for new regulations to safely dispose of chemo residue excreted by cancer patients. So far, the state of Rhode Island and Massachusetts have formed legislative committees to study how to best address this issue.