Policies and practices are finally changing to better protect hospital nurses from exposure to hazardous chemicals, said leading experts to the more than 80 nurses and nursing students of 15 hospitals attending the 'Nurse Greening Their Hospitals' conference at the University of Maryland School of Nursing on Oct. 2.
The conference came on the heels of a groundbreaking, nationwide survey of 1,550 hospital nurses, which revealed that nurses with long-term and intense exposures to environmental hazards developed above-normal levels of cancer and asthma, had more miscarriages, children with birth defects, and other serious medical conditions.
Conference co-organizer Barbara Sattler, RN, DrPH, FAAN, at the School, said nurses are exposed daily to repeated, low-levels of hazardous mixes of residues from medications, anesthetic gases, sterilizing and disinfecting chemicals, radiation, latex, cleaning chemicals, and mercury escaping from broken medical equipment.
Keynote speaker Jane Houlihan, vice president, Environmental Working Group, (EWG), in Washington, D.C., said, "For the first time in a generation, major reform in policies are underway," at national and state government levels.
Houlihan, whose group advocates for health-protective policies, also said despite the role of governments to regulate the workplace, "the situation is still very much in the hands of nurses in their environment."
She advised attending nurses to learn about chemicals in their hospitals, form chemical policies, and overall, "help get hazardous chemicals out of your facility."
The School of Nursing is a leading proponent of nurse greening by virtue of being the only school of nursing in the country with a graduate program in community public health with a specialty in environmental nursing. Working nurses are also offered a Post-Masters Certificate Program in Environmental Health.
Sattler, who is director of the School's Environmental Health Education Center, (EHEC), said, "Hospitals are starting to be healthier places but there is a lot of work to be done. We are addressing the areas we can change, and we [promote] a number of tools so the hospitals can decrease the amount of exposure and the extent."
Across the country, America's hospitals are becoming more environmentally green, agrees Nancy Hughes, director of the Center for Occupational and Environmental Health at the American Nurses Association. Hughes, who was not at the conference, said the School of Nursing is "doing very good work" on the problem.
The movement began in 1998, said Hughes, with efforts to reduce and better control hospital waste, the so-called red bag waste, being incinerated. She said, "Progress has not been slow. It's come a long way in a short time. We just don't want to have patients in that environment, not to mention our health care workers."
Houlihan set the tone for the conference by presenting data showing that hundreds of different manmade pollutants in miniscule levels can be found in the human body from industrial pollution, medication residues, and pesticides. "That's where the nurse's experience begins. They then routinely are exposed to a complex slew of chemicals."
Hazardous chemicals in cleaning and washing products are often a hidden form of indoor air pollution that impacts hospitals, said Linda Linquist, RN, BSN, graduate research assistant for nursing outreach at the School.
Beginning in 1998, she said, institutions could increasingly choose "green" chemistry cleaning products that contain less hazardous toxins, are more energy efficient to make, and degrade faster in the environment.
"I want to encourage you to go back to find out if your hospitals are using green cleaners. If they are not, find out if they have contract language for purchasing environmentally preferable products that are safer alternatives. Then join your green team and bring these issues up," said Linquist, who also represented the Maryland Hospitals for a Healthy Environment. Linquist said hospitals "are caught" between the need for more efficient cleaning and the need to reduce toxic exposures.
The survey of 1,550 nurses, some in each state, was co-sponsored by the EWG and Health Care Without Harm in Arlington, Va. It was conducted in collaboration with the nurses association and the School of Nursing's EHEC. The goal of the survey, said Sattler, was to get a sense of environmental awareness among nurses. And to what extent they have been exposed to chemical hazards.
The conference also instructed nurses in legislative advocacy in legislative and environmental health policy and to encourage their hospitals to purchase locally grown organic food.
Another speaker at the conference, D. Paxson Barker, RN, BS, said she came to the University of Maryland to earn a doctorate in hospital environmental hazards. She developed adult onset asthma from her nursing work environment in Houston, she said. She can no longer practice nursing after a 35-year career, but now will help others entering the field through her scholastic work.
Said Barker, "What's healthy for the nurses is healthy for their patients. And, what's harmful to the nurses is harmful to their patients." Sattler added, "and for their families."
The University of Maryland School of Nursing, founded in 1889, is one of the oldest and largest nursing schools, and is ranked seventh nationally. Enrolling more than 1,600 students in its baccalaureate, master's, and doctoral programs, the School develops leaders who shape the profession of nursing and impact the health care environment.