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Radioactive Cremations?

Radioactive Cremations?

If there wasn’t already enough in the world to be concerned about, here’s a new one, probably one you hadn’t thought about.  At least, I hadn’t until I read the article.

An Arizona crematorium became polluted with a plume of radiation after operators inadvertently incinerated the remains of a cancer patient who had undergone a radioactive treatment just days before his unexpected death.

The Phoenix-based Mayo Clinic doctors who reported the contamination were further alarmed when they found that the crematorium’s operator also had trace amounts of radioactive material in his urine—but from a different isotope than the one found in the recently cremated cancer patient. The doctors published their findings Tuesday in a JAMA research letter.

“Further studies are needed to evaluate the frequency and scope of radiation contamination and health effects of repeated or long-term exposure of employees in crematoriums in the United States, especially as the cremation rate was greater than 50 percent in 2017.”

They also note that there are no federal regulations regarding radioactive material in crematoriums, and the regulations that do exist vary by state. Arizona, for instance, currently has no rules requiring doctors to inform crematoriums about the presence of radiopharmaceuticals in recently deceased patients. Florida, on the other hand, prohibits crematoriums from burning radioactive waste unless they obtain a license from the government.

Who would have thought? New technology (although cremation isn’t necessarily new, it’s popularity is relatively recent) brings new risks and new problems.

Given the short half-lives of both isotopes, the Mayo Clinic doctors don’t think that the accidental cremations pushed exposure over the NRC’s public limit alone. But, they say, the case highlights “a unique and often overlooked postmortem safety challenge.”

Perhaps we should go back to simple wooden coffins with wooden pegs.  They are, after all, environmentally friendly.

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