Nurses: Are You Environmental Health Stewards?

Laura A. Stokowski, RN, MS


August 05, 2014

Shaping the Healing Environment

It seems like every time we talk about going "back to basics" in nursing, Florence Nightingale's name pops up. There is a good reason for this. Miss Nightingale was way ahead of her time in recognizing the effects of the environment on health, and the responsibility of the nurse to promote and maintain a healthy environment for the sick and for the prevention of illness.[4] In 1859, she could scarcely have imagined the vast array of hazardous chemicals that would one day be used in hospitals, but the attention to air, water, drainage, noise, and light are as relevant today as when advocated by Miss Nightingale.

When a patient's healing environment is the hospital, nurses must participate in minimizing threats to health posed by the products used in and around patients. Nurses must use their influence to encourage hospitals to purchase safer substitute products for patient care (eg, DEHP-free intravenous tubing and BPA-free infant feeding products) and housekeeping ("green" cleaning) products, and help their employers see that these products aren't just safer, but also will save money.[5]

And healthcare environmental hazards aren't limited to patients. Nurses and other healthcare providers are also exposed to chemical and radiation hazards in the course of patient care. When they can't be eliminated, appropriate protection to minimize exposure of both patients and staff to these hazards must be ensured.

Nurses can consult Health Care Without Harm (HCWH) for information and guidance on issues pertinent to the healthcare environment (restorative healthcare, healthy food in healthcare, climate and health, toxic materials, safer chemicals, green building and energy, environmentally preferable purchasing, and waste management). HCWH is an international coalition of hospitals and healthcare systems, medical professionals, community groups, health-affected constituencies, labor unions, environmental and environmental health organizations, and religious groups with the shared goal of a healthcare sector that does no harm, and instead promotes the health of people and the environment.

In 2014, HCWH announced the winners of its first "Climate Change and Health" contest for nurses. Nurses are encouraged to join the free monthly "Practice Work Group" calls that ANHE hosts on greening hospitals. ANHE has evolved into the go-to place for nurses interested in greening their hospitals.


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