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Workplace Handling of Anti-cancer Drugs Linked to Increased Risk of Genetic Damage

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Healthcare workers who regularly handled anti-cancer drugs were significantly more likely to show signs of genetic damage than people who did not handle the drugs, reports a study in the journal Mutation Research/Reviews in Mutation Research. NIOSH contributed to the study with federal and private partners.

Genetic damage, including damage to the chromosomes, can increase the risk of cancer, according to previous research in Europe. Nearly 40 years ago, concerns arose about work-related exposure to anti-cancer, or antineoplastic, drugs when it became apparent that patients treated with the drugs sometimes developed additional cancers secondary to the one under treatment. Since that time, numerous studies have linked genetic abnormalities with work-related exposure to anti-cancer drugs among nurses, pharmacists, and other healthcare workers who frequently handle the drugs. The level of risk, however, varied between studies.

To understand the risk to healthcare works who handle anticancer drugs during a normal workday, investigators conducted an extensive review of published studies on the subject. Looking at chromosomal abnormalities as a biomarker for genetic damage, they found a significantly higher level of damage among healthcare workers who routinely handled anti-cancer drugs compared to study participants who did not handle the drugs.

The study comprised 17 studies published in 16 peer-reviewed articles. After searching the scientific literature for relevant research, the investigators selected the papers from an initial sample of 39 studies. Since the literature review focused solely on the level of risk, it cannot provide information about whether protective equipment could help reduce the risk. Due to the serious nature of potential genetic damage, however, the investigators emphasize the importance of protecting healthcare workers by limiting workplace exposure to anti-cancer drugs

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