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Study to Examine Health Care Workers' Exposure to Cancer Drugs

Kate Traynor

Three U.S. hospitals are preparing to study whether occupational exposure to antineoplastic drugs has any physical effect on the pharmacists, pharmacy technicians, and nurses who handle these agents.

The study, which is sponsored by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, involves testing environmental surfaces as well as collecting blood and urine specimens from volunteers. Health care workers at the University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, the University of Maryland, and the University of North Carolina will be asked to participate in the project.

According to a notice in the July 25 Federal Register, the research team will use a "battery of sensitive biomarkers" to examine the effects of chronic exposure to low levels of antineoplastic drugs.

Roger Anderson, Dr.Ph., head of the Division of Pharmacy at M. D. Anderson, has studied occupational exposure to hazardous drugs for years, but he said that his group's recent work has focused on the contamination of floors, counters, and other surfaces in the work area. "We don't really know what's going on in the person" who was exposed, he noted.

Anderson said the findings from the new project will fill in "a missing link in some of the information that we have from previous studies."

The study is led by Maryland physician Melissa McDiarmid. Anderson said the sample-collection team will probably begin its work at McDiarmid's practice site. He estimated that sample collection at M. D. Anderson is a year away and that the entire project will probably take two to three years to complete.

Anderson said that the senior staff at the cancer center who have been involved in planning the study are "very eager" for it to begin. He predicted that 30–40 pharmacists, pharmacy technicians, and nurses will participate in the M. D. Anderson portion of the study. Most study participants will be those who work with antineoplastic drugs, but Anderson said the project will also enlist control subjects "who work in the same institution but not in the area where the drugs are."

Data from the project will be used to update the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's 1995 guidelines for the safe handling of antineoplastic agents by health care workers. ASHP Professional Practice Associate Joseph Deffenbaugh, M.P.H., said he expects that the findings will also be central to the revision of ASHP's technical assistance bulletin on handling cytotoxic and hazardous drugs in health systems.