Nurses: Are You Environmental Health Stewards?

Laura A. Stokowski, RN, MS


August 05, 2014

Why Nurses?

Why should nurses pay more attention to environmental health? According to Sattler:

There is very good evidence indicating that environmental exposures contribute significantly to morbidity and mortality, both in the United States and globally. Some of these exposures and conditions can be mitigated by individual behavior changes; by institutions' employment policies and practices; and by cities, states, and countries with laws and regulations. If nurses want to understand what causes disease in their patients, then they have to understand how chemicals get into the human body and cause harm. Nurses need to understand how to assess an individual's environmental exposures and provide anticipatory guidance so that their patients can reduce their exposures and thereby reduce their risk for disease. Nurse researchers can include environmental variables when they do research. And all nurses can be involved in policies, whether it's their hospital policies to use less toxic cleaning products or public policy to reduce air pollution. Every time we reduce an exposure to a known toxic chemical, we reduce our risk for harm.

The public is barraged with information about climate change, fracking, chemicals in foods, unsafe drinking water, and more. The daily news on these issues is ubiquitous. The general public will often bring their questions about the significance of something they have heard to nurses, so nurses need to be a step ahead. Moreover, nurses read in their own professional literature about the effects of the environment on such diseases as cancer and autoimmune disorders. Is it right to have this information and not share it with patients?

Integrating Environmental Health Into Nursing Practice

In 2007, the American Nurses Association created a set of principles to guide environmental health nursing practice (Table).[2]

Table. American Nurses Association Principles of Environmental Health for Nursing Practice[2]

  1. Knowledge of environmental health concepts is essential to nursing practice.

  2. The precautionary principle guides nurses in their practice to use products and practices that do not harm human health or the environment and to take preventive action in the fact of uncertainty.

  3. Nurses have a right to work in an environment that is safe and healthy.

  4. Healthy environments are sustained through multi-disciplinary collaboration.

  5. Choice of materials, products, technology, and practices in the environment that impact nursing practice are based on the best available evidence.

  6. Approaches to promoting a healthy environment reflect a respect for the diverse values, beliefs, cultures, and circumstances of patients and their families.

  7. Nurses participate in assessing the quality of the environment in which they practice and live.

  8. Nurses, other health care workers, patients, and communities have the right to know relevant and timely information about the potentially harmful products, chemicals, pollutants, and hazards to which they are exposed.

  9. Nurses participate in research of best practices that promote a safe and healthy environment.

  10. Nurses must be supported in advocating for and implementing environmental health principles in nursing practice.


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