Dangerous levels of drug particles may be affecting pharmacy workers

December 15, 2008
Alaina Scott, Senior Editor
Alaina Scott, Senior Editor

A study says that pharmacy workers may be affected by dangerous levels of drug dust. The study's funder may have a remedy for that.

A study by AlburtyLab Inc. claims thousands of pharmacy workers are exposed to particles of airborne drugs. But the study has left some pharmacists and technology manufacturers questioning its methods and the motive of the company funding the study.

AlburtyLab and the University of Missouri Mass Spectrometry Facility carried out the study in five retail pharmacies to examine concentration levels, size characteristics, and chemical properties of pill dust generated by McKesson/Parata RDS Dispensing System, which uses air pressure to eject pills into prescription bottles, and ScriptPro SP 200 Robotic Prescription Dispensing System, which uses manual counting.

"This study is not really anything different than we've been saying for a long time in various ways," Michael Coughlin, CEO of ScriptPro, said. "Machines that use air pressure have some issues, we believe. We've been saying this to the industry since 2003."

ScriptPro LLC funded the study with an undisclosed amount of money, Coughlin said. But the company maintained that there is no conflict of interest because most studies are completed by people with a stake in the results.

Some pharmacists and other researchers have said that ScriptPro's vested interest in this study skewed the results to show that the only safe way of dispensing medications is to use the funder's product. Amy H. Snow, a certified industrial hygienist and former Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) compliance inspector, agrees.

"We don't design the studies," Coughlin said. "We pick topics that we think are of significance to the industry, and we have funded a number of studies."

The study included a quote from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) referring to the potential for injury to pharmacists and pharmacy technicians from exposure to hazardous drugs. The CDC statement was taken out of context because automated machines should not be dispensing hazardous medications and steps should be in place to handle powerful drugs, such as cancer drugs, Snow said.

Snow said OSHA, which regulates working safety conditions, studies the air breathed by pharmacists in a test of their personal breathing zones. "That is not the way they collected things," Snow said, speaking of the disputed study. "They took area samples on the equipment." She said air quality is not assessed through measurement of particles on the equipment used or dust sitting on counters. Instead, the air people are breathing should be monitored.

"Pharmacies are inherently dusty places," Tom Rhodes, executive vice president of Parata Systems, said. "You've got to ask yourself, has dust been a problem for pharmacy over the past 100 years? And the answer is no. Over the past 100 years, we haven't seen a federal or state lawsuit due to dust exposure."

Rhodes said the study "implicates every pharmacy out there that doesn't use ScriptPro's system."

Alburty said the company has been contacted by a wide range of government and corporate clients to design and conduct independent, third-party analysis of complex aerosol issues.

Study researchers Alburty and Pamela S. Murowchick of AlburtyLab called for federal health and environmental regulatory agencies to immediately study this issue. So far, no agency has taken up the recommendation.