Chemotherapy Drugs Are Killing Nurses

Whenever somebody hears about chemotherapeutic drugs, they tend to think of the life-saving medicines that are responsible for curing multiple types of cancers. We never fail to get excited about the development of a new chemotherapeutic drug that could save even more lives. And rightly so!

What you won’t hear about is the safe handling of these drugs. Although doctors are the ones prescribing them, it is the nurses who have to manually handle and administer them to their patients. Anybody who has worked with anticancer drugs knows that there are two major risks involved: the health of the person receiving them, and the health of the person administering them.


Why Are Nurses at Risk When Handling Chemotherapeutic Drugs?

In the same way that someone can suffer from the effects of second-hand smoke, nurses can also be exposed to second-hand chemotherapy. It takes nothing more than an accidental spill on the skin due to improper handling, a small spray that happens upon puncturing the drug container, or an inhalation of fumes in order to experience these effects. This is how powerful these drugs can be, and it is also the reason why they can be so effective at treating the cancers that they target.

The reason these drugs are so toxic is because they target normal human cells in addition to cancer cells. Depending on the drug and its toxicity, there can be immediate acute effects that include nausea and irritation on the area of exposure. This is due to the drug’s rapid biological absorption that takes place upon contact with human skin. However, repeated exposure over long periods of time can eventually lead to chronic conditions that include organ failure due to toxicity and infertility. Some nurses will even find that they themselves have developed cancer because of the time that they spend handling and administering these drugs!

To make matters worse, these drugs are extremely difficult to clean up and can stay in a certain spot for months on end. When you think about how these drugs work, it is very easy to see that serious consequences arise for nurses that don’t handle these drugs properly!


It’s A Bigger Deal Than You Think.

One would think that these occurrences are rare, but a look at the data paints a more shocking picture. Almost 1 in 5 nurses have experienced chemotherapy drug exposure to their eyes or skin at some point while handling the skin. This doesn’t account for the nurses who leave their exposures unreported to the higher authorities in order to cover up for mishaps or mistakes.

The picture darkens for those nurses who are handling these drugs while pregnant. Long-term studies are showing that the children of these nurses are more likely be be born with cognitive and/or physiological abnormalities. That’s assuming that they make it through all three trimesters, because often times enough damage from chemotherapy drug exposure during the pregnancy can result in spontaneous abortion or malformation of the fetus!


How Can These Drugs Be Safely Handled?

The occurrences described above come primarily from the fact that safety guidelines for handling these drugs were not formally put it place. With the effects of long-term chemotherapy exposure on nurses’ health clearly established, hospitals are now taking proactive measures to ensure that the drugs can be safely handled with reduced chances of accidental exposure. Even in the case that a nurse comes into contact with the drug, they will be educated on protocols regarding what should be done next.

Although each drug will be handled differently, there are some general suggestions that nurses can follow. These include (but are not limited to) verifying correct drug orders with other nurses, wearing the proper protective equipment, educating oneself on proper protocols for handling the drug, knowing the correct procedure for waste disposals and spills, and informing fellow workers immediately of any accidental exposure to the drug. This will take extra time and resources to implement, but in the long run it will ensure the safety of nurses and reduce the incidence of exposure to toxic chemotherapy drugs. Some nurses may not be familiar with using these drugs, and they should not hesitate to seek assistance from experienced colleagues who have handled the drug before.

It is important to note that chemotherapy drugs should not be demonized in any way, shape, or form. They are effective treatments for the patients taking them and should be recognized as such. At the same time, it is equally important to recognize that nurses are putting their health at great risk when they do not handle the drugs properly. While it is inevitable that many nurses will have to handle these drugs at some point in their career, this does not mean that serious health risks should be the norm!

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Scrubs Staff


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5 Responses to Chemotherapy Drugs Are Killing Nurses


    The article title is alarmist. Where is the data that chemotherapy is “killing” nurses?? Where are the studies that track the health effects of long term exposure, even with PPE?? I pushed chemo for over 20 years and have yet to see any studies!

  2. Kris@ONS

    Dear Scrubs Staff,

    Your recent article, “Chemotherapy Drugs are Killing Nurses” was shared with staff at the Oncology Nursing Society, with the concern that it was sparking fear among nurses caring for individuals receiving chemotherapy. We ask that rather than being afraid to work with these drugs, nurses collaborate with other healthcare professionals to develop a culture of safety around their use. In response to our member concerns, we have posted a blog at, citing resources, including ONS position statements, educational programs, and standards that have been developed to support nurses as they administer hazardous drugs. Please feel free to contact me at, or our clinical email address at if we can provide assistance with chemotherapy safety, safe handling, or oncology nursing questions.

    Kristine B. LeFebvre, MSN, RN, AOCN
    Oncology Clinical Specialist
    Oncology Nursing Society

  3. song_weaver

    My pardon but what an alarmist post. Your statements while true, are delivered in a way that makes nurses think that no processes or procedures have ever been put in place before to safeguard oncology nurses. In our center no nurse can give chemo unless they have the ONS Chemo/Bio certification. That certification lays out safe handling practices for nurses. No hospital or outpatient center should give chemotherapy unless their nurses are certified in this way. I have been an oncology nurse for 22 years and safety has always been the first thing I was taught and teach to my nurses when giving chemotherapy. Additionally, ONS has position papers that outline safe practices which are written with evidence based practice in mind. So I believe that not enough research was done by the person writing this article.


    This is a highly inaccurate and irresponsible article! I have been an Oncology nurse for 30+ years, giving chemo and don’t know of any nurse who has been injured by administering chemo, much less killed!
    If this is the kind of erroneous and inflammatory information Scrubs will publish, I’m cancelling my subscription. You should be ashamed! Please email me at if you’d like to discuss.

  5. Borthy

    I feel extremely passionate about this and do a lot of work around educating staff about this particularly in the administration of these agents.
    We have written a few articles and have undertaken some research of our own into this and the results are shocking. We are pushing to make the use of closed systems mandatory to administer these agents.

    We are setting up a SACT safety website to help raise awareness and help staff who want to take steps to protect themselves and others within the workplace.

    We have even tried to lobby government with a petition but sadly we did not get enough signatures to have this discussed, but we will try again.

    This topic needs to be talked about and to be heard and changes to practice made in the UK.