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Welcome to PSR's Environmental Health Policy Institute, where we ask questions -- then we ask the experts to answer them. Join us as physicians, health professionals, and environmental health experts share their ideas, inspiration, and analysis about toxic chemicals and environmental health policy.

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Why Nurses Need Chemical Policy Reform

By Barbara Sattler, RN DrPH

In 2010, the American Nurses Association amended its standards for professional practice to include a standard on environmental health. This is the first time that the profession has clearly articulated that the quality of the environment and its relationship to human health is part of the nursing domain.  What this means is that we are now responsible for knowing about the relationship between the quality of our air, water, food, and products and human health. This will require us to understand the chemical make-up of these media and their potential for health risks. This, in turn, will require easy access to the ingredients of such substances as personal care products, cleaning supplies, and myriad other household and workplace chemicals.  We will also need to know about the health risks associated with these products in order to help our patients and our communities to understand their risks and how to reduce them. Having good health risk data and full disclosure of ingredients is now essential to our nursing work.

As nurses we already work with patients and families to reduce chemical exposures that cause asthma events. We are already being asked by pregnant women what products are safe for them now and when their baby is born. We are seen as the most trusted sources of health information and yet our ability to provide sound, evidence-based information is hindered by two resounding facts:

1) Chemicals and products that are in commerce are often poorly evaluated for health effects such that little or no information may be available; and

2) The chemical ingredients and/or health risk information on labels is either inadequate or simply absent, which limits our ability to help our patients, families and community members to make safe and healthy choices.

As we expand our patient assessments to include questions about chemical exposures, we will need information that may not be available because our current chemical policies do not encourage, never mind require, pre-market testing for health risks nor require adequate disclosure. These two important sources of public health information are essential to making correct diagnosis, developing prevention strategies, and promoting health.

The Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments is a network of nurses from the very many specialties that comprise the nursing profession – hospital-based nurses, including pediatric, neonatal, obstetrical, and medical/surgical nurses; school-based nurses; public health nurses; and nurses in academia. While we work in different settings and take care of patients through different life stages, we know that environmental exposures in our homes, schools, workplaces, and in the community are impacting health. The science that has been emerging in the past couple of decades is associating increased risk of more and more chronic diseases with environmental exposures. The time is right for our chemical policies to be based primarily on the protection of human health with rigorous pre-market testing, access to research results, and full-disclosure of ingredients and, as nurses, we are demanding exactly  this for our patients’ sake.

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