Nurses: Are You Environmental Health Stewards?

Laura A. Stokowski, RN, MS


August 05, 2014

Environmental Health and Nurses

Environmental health has been steadily gaining momentum as we learn about not only the effects of the environment on human health, but also evidence-based strategies to mitigate those effects. The scope of environmental health is massive, because the environment is "everything around us -- the air we breathe, the water we drink and use, and the food we consume. It's also the chemicals, radiation, microbes, and physical forces with which we come into contact."[1]

The ways in which human health can be influenced by the environment are so numerous that nurses can easily become overwhelmed and confused about their role in environmental health. These feelings can multiply the more nurses learn about the health implications of the environment. "Thinking they have to do everything sometimes keeps nurses from doing anything," explains Barbara Sattler, RN, DrPh, Professor, University of San Francisco, School of Nursing and Health Professions.

She's right. It's very easy to think, "I can't influence everything my patients eat and drink, what they do for a living, or the type of car they drive. I can't force them to stop smoking, to use sunscreen, or move to a cleaner city." This kind of thinking can easily become incapacitating.

Sattler suggests that nurses take a breath, step back, and learn about some very simple steps to begin incorporating environmental exposure assessments into their everyday nursing practice. Such assessments prompt pediatric nurses to ask their patients and parents about potential risks from household and outdoor use of pesticides, obstetric nurses and midwives to ask about lead-based paint dust in their patients' homes, and all nurses to consider other likely exposures to their patient populations.

Environmental Health Is Not a Subspecialty

Although there are many environmental health experts in nursing, Sattler warns that environmental health is not the purview of a defined cadre of nurses, in the manner of forensics, informatics, or wound care nursing. Environmental health must be integrated into the practice of all nurses, regardless of setting of care or population served.[1] The environmental health experts, like Sattler, are the leaders, researchers, and educators who can help nursing as a whole to embrace and encourage environmental health for their patients.

To accomplish this, nurses with interest and expertise in environmental health created the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments (ANHE). The ANHE is a network of nurses from every corner of nursing, both clinical and academic, who share the belief that the environment and health are inextricably connected, and that nurses can influence whether this connection is negative or positive. Nurses from around the world participate in this virtual organization to learn more about environmental health or to join a workgroup dedicated to education, practice, research, or advocacy in environmental health. Nurses and nurse specialty organizations are encouraged to join the EnviroRN community at ANHE.


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