Nurses: Are You Environmental Health Stewards?

Laura A. Stokowski, RN, MS


August 05, 2014

Becoming an Environmental Health Steward

Sattler emphasizes that "there are many doors through which nurses can enter the world of environmental health." An issue that cuts across almost every area of nursing practice is toxic chemicals. Nurses can begin to ask patients about their exposures to toxic chemicals, and whether they read and understand product labels on personal care and cleaning and other household products.

Nurses can teach patients about chemicals in the foods they consume and which foods are particularly prone to containing toxic substances. Patients who eat fish and are concerned about mercury ingestion can be referred to the Natural Resources Defense Council's Mercury Calculator, where they can plug in the type and amount of fish they ate this week, and find out whether they went over the recommended mercury levels (Hint: With a single serving of fresh salmon and a serving of canned tuna, I did).

A helpful resource for toxic chemicals in fresh produce is the EWG's rankings of pesticide residues in fruits and vegetables. (Highest: apples; lowest: avocados).

The EWG has a wealth of up-to-date information on everything from hazardous ingredients in everyday cosmetic products to toxic fumes emanating from infant crib mattresses. They also have an online tool (What's in your water?) that allows users to enter their ZIP code, and tells users what pollutants (and levels) have been found in their local tap water.

Personal care products, used by almost everyone of any age, contain eye-opening numbers of toxic chemicals, which people willingly -- and even pay -- to let penetrate their skin. When discarded, these chemicals can end up in the water supply. Nurses can suggest that patients, especially adolescent and young women, use a free mobile app called Skin Deep to check the toxicity of the products they use before purchase just by scanning the product's bar code, or go to the Skin Deep Website.

Where to begin your professional journey to environmental stewardship may also depend on your area of nursing, or the geographical area of practice. If you work with pregnant women, your focus may differ from that of a nurse who works primarily with children, oncology patients, or elderly persons. Sattler emphasizes that nurses should become familiar with the environmental concerns in their local area of practice. Do many of your patients live in housing where lead-based paint is a possible hazard? Does your patient drink well water, and how clean is it?


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