Northern Ont. union worried members were exposed to cell-destroying substances

A union in Sudbury is notifying around 900 members that some of them might have been exposed to cytotoxins -- a cell-destroying substance -- while on the job.

Cytotoxins are used in treatments such as chemotheraphy to attack cancer cells. But they can also present a danger to anyone who is exposed.

In Sudbury, Tara Fennell, a personal support worker, was taking care of a resident when she learned he was cytotoxic.

"I had no idea what it was so when I went home and researched it, I learned that he was on chemotherapy meds," said Fennell. "And there was a whole host of education, policies, procedures, PPE, waste management that weren't in place."

Exposure can lead to a host of issues and negative health effects. It's particularly dangerous for pregnant women. Fennell said anyone taking cytotoxins excretes them in their bodily fluids for a period of time.

"(The fluids are) just as toxic as the medication, so everyone handling that should be in chemotherapy gloves, double chemotherapy gloves, chemotherapy gowns, splash masks, booties, like the medication when it's being prepared should be in hooded vents," said Fennell.

She's now working to help contact the 900 other members to see if any of them were exposed. The union is also working to help them fill out WSIB claims.

Eric Boulay, president of Mine Mill Unifor Local 598, said numerous workers could have been exposed to the toxins in the last couple of decades.

Hospitals and the cancer centre have proper protocols to dispose of the cytotoxic waste, but the union said long-term care facilities and nursing homes have been granted exemptions.

"About 1,000 members currently active in our local that could have potentially been exposed to substances, but most of these facilities have been around for 20 years," said Boulay.

A lot of the waste they're dealing with, as a result, is now ending up in the landfill.

Fennell, who was also exposed, said there needs to be more protocols in place.

"More money for PPE, you have to provide education," she said.

"It's what they've been cited for because there is no education at these facilities, so they need an education program, policies and procedures and a higher calibre of PPE."

Boulay said the union would help any member worried they were exposed file a claim.

"And then if anyone is feeling any symptoms, we'll 100 per cent help them fill out a claim for the symptoms they're suffering and follow through all the way to get these claims accepted by WSIB as a recognized hazard," he said.

Two provinces have laws in the books, to inform workers and employees about the dangers of cytotoxins. The union is hoping Ontario will be the next.

It's hoping to reach out to the new minister of health after the provincial election.