Study: Many Nurses Handle Chemo Drugs without Proper PPE

Published January 10, 2019

​Many nurses who administer antineoplastic (chemotherapeutic) drugs report not always wearing protective gloves and protective gowns, according to a study published in the American Journal of Nursing. The study results are drawn from the responses of 315 pregnant and 3,845 nonpregnant nurses who participated in the Nurses’ Health Study, an online survey of nurses in Canada and the United States. Researchers focused on data from nurses who had administered antineoplastic drugs within the previous month and on those who had administered them during the first 20 weeks of pregnancy, a time when the fetus is especially susceptible to exposure.

Antineoplastic drugs are administered in liquid or pill form. Exposure to these drugs can harm the healthy cells of nurses and of a developing baby. Safe handling of these drugs requires the use of protective gloves and protective gowns, according to NIOSH.

Researchers found that twelve percent of nonpregnant nurses and 9 percent of pregnant nurses reported that they never wore protective gloves when administering antineoplastic drugs. The percentage who never wore gowns was far higher: 42 percent of nonpregnant nurses and 38 percent of pregnant nurses.

In addition, during the first 20 weeks of pregnancy, approximately 10 percent of pregnant nurses did not wear gloves, and about half did not wear gowns.

“NIOSH has worked extensively to protect workers who handle antineoplastic drugs, many of which are known or probable human carcinogens,” said Christina Lawson, PhD, epidemiologist and lead author of the study. “Many of these drugs can also damage a person’s fertility or harm a pregnancy, for example by causing a miscarriage or birth defects, so we wanted to look at the health of pregnant nurses for this study.

“These data underscore the need for continued education and training to ensure that both employers and nurses—pregnant and nonpregnant—are fully aware of such hazards and of the recommended precautionary measures,” Lawson said.

Previous studies suggest possible reasons why nurses do not wear protective clothing when handling antineoplastic drugs. Some nurses may be more concerned with their patients’ health than with their own. Others may not be aware of the toxicity of these drugs, or of the availability of protective gowns and gloves.

In addition to NIOSH, researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health, Harvard Medical School, and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Mass., contributed to the study. For more information, see NIOSH’s press release.