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Originally published Saturday, July 10, 2010 at 10:08 PM

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For veterinarian, diagnosis touched off a crusade

Brett Cordes had been a practicing veterinarian for nearly a decade when he was diagnosed at age 35 with thyroid cancer. One of the first questions his doctor asked after he gave Cordes the diagnosis was whether he handled chemotherapy agents.

Brett Cordes had been a practicing veterinarian for nearly a decade when he was diagnosed at age 35 with thyroid cancer.

One of the first questions his doctor asked after he gave Cordes the diagnosis was whether he handled chemotherapy agents.

"He said they see a link between chemo and thyroid cancers," said Cordes, who is healthy four years after his diagnosis and treatment.

"It changed my life. I quit my practice and made it my passion to improve oncology safety for vets."

Animal oncology exploded within the past decade as some of the most common chemotherapeutic drugs became available as generics.

Instead of $1,200 a vial, those drugs cost $12 to $15 a vial, he said. "That opened the floodgates."

Charlie Powell, spokesman for the College of Veterinary Medicine at Washington State University, said the number of vets who handle chemo drugs is low, and those doing so receive specialized training and take precautions similar to those required for human medicine.

"It's very safe to say the vast majority of vets in practice will never give a chemo dose, and will refer to cancer specialists," he said. "It's highly unlikely they will try to tackle it themselves."

But Cordes believes that is changing. He estimated that 4,000 general practices in the United States administer a few doses a month, often with no special precautions in place.

With his medium-sized, mixed-animal practice in Scottsdale, Ariz., Cordes would have put himself in that category.

"I used to dump the drugs down the sink, and they would stain the sink red for four days," he said. "And I wasn't the only one doing it."

He didn't use specialized protective gear or take other measures to keep himself or his workplace from becoming contaminated.

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Now he advises others on how to stay safe.

He recently co-authored a paper for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), and he helps market a closed-system device that confines spray when vials are punctured.

NIOSH estimates 500,000 veterinary health-care workers are potentially exposed to hazardous drugs, many of them young women of reproductive age. Exposed workers can include technicians, kennel workers, cleaning and maintenance workers and office staff, Cordes said.

The potential risk extends to pet owners, too, he said, because of the length of time the drugs persist in the environment. If someone brings a dog in for treatment and the dog is later throwing up at home, the people in the house may be exposed.

"Education is a huge issue," he said. "A lot of people still don't believe it's a problem."

— Carol Smith

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