Hazardous Drug Handling in the Community Pharmacy

One of the most commonly overlooked areas of community pharmacies I have either managed or worked in involves the handling and dispensing of hazardous drugs (HD) by pharmacy staff. This is unfortunate, because hazardous drugs can cause skin rashes, infertility and miscarriages, and possibly even cancer in healthcare workers that have been exposed. Guidelines have been in place for years through NIOSH and more recently with the development of USP <800>.

In the inpatient setting, HD handling precautions have gotten significant attention for quite some time; the development of closed system transfer devices (CSTD) minimizes the risk of healthcare worker exposure during compounding, negative air pressure rooms and hoods minimize the chance of exposure to volatile compounds, appropriate PPE has been mandatory, and policies and procedures as well as training have been commonplace.

These guidelines, though, apply to all settings where healthcare workers could be exposed, not just inpatient pharmacies, infusion centers, and other places we traditionally associate with hazardous drugs.

In addition, NIOSH defines a drug as hazardous if it "exhibits one or more of the following characteristics in humans or animals:

  • Carcinogenicity

  • Teratogenicity or developmental toxicity

  • Reproductive toxicity

  • Organ toxicity at low doses

  • Genotoxicity

  • Structure and toxicity profiles of new drugs that mimic existing hazardous drugs."

I've never worked at a pharmacy that doesn't have drugs that exhibit at least one of these. But are we fully protecting ourselves and our staff in the community pharmacy?

Here are some of the most commonly missed areas:

1. Gloves

First off - use them!

Using any gloves, though, is not enough because there are many types of gloves (ex. vinyl) that allow the medication to pass right through, exposing pharmacy staff. While they obviously do not need to be sterile when dispensing oral dosage forms, they do need to have been tested for their ability to prevent exposure to hazardous drugs. The standard for this is from the American Society for Testing and Materials and is known as ASTM D6978. Gloves that have met this standard will be labeled as such on the packaging.

Here are some gloves that meet those standards and are also inexpensive.

2. Deactivation and decontamination of work area

A common miss in this area is to wipe counters, spatulas, and counting trays down with rubbing alcohol when finished. Isopropyl alcohol, though, will decontaminate [remove hazardous drug residue] but not deactivate [render compound inert or inactive].

USP <800> requires both: "All areas where HD are handled and all reusable equipment [HINT: counting tray and spatula!] and devices must be deactivated, decontaminated, and cleaned."

Instead, consider purchasing wipes specifically designed for this purpose. Commercially available products, for example, might have a two-step process with the following chemicals:

  • Sodium hypochlorite (bleach): Deactivates the majority of hazardous drugs on the market and decontaminates the work surface.

  • Sodium thiosulfate: Deactivates the bleach.

My personal favorite is Pharma-Surface Guard because of 1) cost and 2) availability from my distributor's pharmacy line, so I can get them next-day with no hassle.

3. Policies and Procedures

Having policies and procedures in place that are easy to read and refer to is critical. While all of our staff have been trained, I still taped a copy of our P and P to the side of one of the shelves near our HD area where anyone needing a reminder about a step in the process can quickly refer to it. After all, we might not dispense hazardous drugs every day so it is there if someone needs it (in addition to being able to ask other staff members).

4. Protecting the pharmacist performing the final check

I recommend purchasing some labeled Ziploc bags to put the vial in after it is filled (bags that are printed with "hazardous" or "chemo" on them in bright yellow are ideal). That way when the medication makes its way through the workflow a pharmacist won't get exposed accidentally while performing the final quality check on the medication, and the vial won't be able to contaminate the bin or other surfaces.

In fact, USP <800> states that drugs "identified by the entity as requiring special HD handling precautions must be clearly labeled at all times during their transport."

I certainly consider moving the drug from one section of the pharmacy to another to be "transport."

5. Storage

Two big misses in this area:

1) they should be clearly labeled (just tape a sign to each of the shelves, for example. I made one and put it in the free products section for your convenience).

2) They should be stored below eye level, so that the bottles don't fall on staff when they are taking them off the shelf.

6. Site-specific list of hazardous drugs:

The site-specific list is trickier because there are many drugs considered HD that you will never use and it is confusing to staff to have such a long list. The site-specific list, though, must include drugs listed by NIOSH (linked in "Helpful Resources" below). As you get new drugs in they should be checked against the NIOSH list to see if they should be classified as hazardous.

7. Receiving

Studies have demonstrated trace contamination of manufacturer containers so it is a good idea to wipe bottles down with deactivating wipes prior to putting them on the shelf. This just provides an extra layer of protection in the case that a hazardous drug mistakenly gets put in the non-hazardous area, handled without gloves, etc.

Obviously every precaution should be taken for that not to happen, but like any highly reliable system, we need to design it while considering failure points (i.e. Failure Mode Effects Analysis).

Helpful Resources:

This article is not at all intended to be comprehensive. I highly encourage you to take a look at these standards and in-depth resources while making your own site-specific procedures:

1. USP <800>: This link will allow you to sign up for a free download of <795>, <797>, and <800>

2. NIOSH List of Antineoplastic and Other Hazardous Drugs in Healthcare Settings, 2016: Page 34 of this guide is a gem: it is a table that tells you, by dosage form, what kind of PPE is recommended. I would not start writing your P and P without checking out this table.

3. Ready for 800: Awesome website written by experts in the field to help you get ready.


References (not otherwise linked within this article):

1. Fleury-Souverain S1, Nussbaumer S, Mattiuzzo M, Bonnabry P. Determination of the external contamination and cross-contamination by cytotoxic drugs on the surfaces of vials available on the Swiss market. J Oncol Pharm Pract. 2014 Apr;20(2):100-11. doi: 10.1177/1078155213482683. Epub 2013 May 14.

2. USP <800> Compliant Cleaning Procedures for Hazardous Drugs and Contec® Product Solutions. Contec. Accessed online July 16, 2019. Available at:

Keywords: HD, USP 800, NIOSH, hazardous drug