Still, despite the financial hurdle and lack of official oversight, veterinarians' handling practices have evolved, in many
cases, to include impermeable gowns, gloves and biological safety cabinets. Still, safety measures need to go much further,
Four years after the CDC's warning, human medicine faces lawsuits linking workers' exposure to diseases spanning everything
from reproductive abnormalities and hearing loss to skin irritation and breast cancer. Although science still lacks hard evidence
showing a connection between chemotherapy exposure and disease in occupational handlers, veterinary experts liken the profession's
ham-fisted approach to safety to where the profession was nearly 15 years ago on radiation, when associations between exposure
and cancer emerged to force regulations.
"These drugs cause DNA disruption, and in comparison to radiation, chemotherapy exposure has proven just as deadly," says
Dr. G.G. Davidson, who claims the discovery of precancerous lesions on her bladder prompted the veterinarian pharmacist to
crack down on her once "cavalier" approach to chemotherapy drug handling.
"It's a huge liability issue. If someone has a miscarriage in a veterinary practice, the owner will be hard-pressed to prove
that he didn't contribute to that."
Dr. James F. Wilson agrees, although the lawyer and veterinarian consultant maintains that such legal battling could "be very
costly and go on forever."
"I don't think any insurance would cover a practice owner in a case like this," he contends. "It might be immensely hard to
prove an approximate cause of the illness, but such a lawsuit would likely expose a practice owner to financial hardship.
It would certainly cost a lot to deal with this."
Thomas O'Connor, a scientist with the CDC's National Institute of Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH) says that while there's
no strong evidence concerning occupational exposures, a soon-to-be-published study he conducted looked at workplace contamination
in three human hospitals. The result: Half a dozen drugs were picked up in the urine of workers, including chemotherapy agents.
Wipe samples and air samples revealed that pharmacy and patient areas were highly contaminated, posing dermal exposure risks
to everyone encountering them.
O'Connor, who has researched chemotherapy drugs and the effects of such human carcinogens for 25 years, imagines that contamination
in veterinary practices might prove much worse.
"Despite the safety protocols, these drugs were everywhere, on the counters and on the floors," he says. "In veterinary practices,
I wouldn't guess that you wouldn't even have that level of safety, especially because technicians are mixing the same drugs
that pharmacies handle for human hospitals. You also have animals urinating, and a lot of these drugs coming out in the urine.
There's a real danger to people who want to be with their animals while they're being treated. It's got to be a fairly hazardous