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Loaded With Chemicals

May 11, 2010

(editor’s note: These remarks were delivered by Donna Yancey, RN, member of the Washington chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility at National Nurses Week, May 11, 2010.  Ms. Yancey retired from Seattle Children’s Hospital as a nurse and has worked in the health care field for 45 years.)

I’m loaded with chemicals. I found this out from the results of a biomonitoring study I participated in called Hazardous Chemicals in Healthcare, sponsored by Physicians for Social Responsibility and the American Nurses Association.  The study tested nurses and doctors for toxic chemicals. Each participant had at least 24 chemicals in their body and 2 participants had as many as 39 chemicals. All of us had bisphenol A and some form of phthalates, PBDEs and PFCs.

I was fairly alarmed at my personal results.  Feeling like a walking chemical factory is a bit daunting. It is a short leap to realize that as chemical use has increased in our world, so have cancer rates. This is only one disease with probable chemical cause.

My chemical load was high in part because of my age – chemicals have had a longer time to build up in my body.  However, because I’m mindful of how to reduce some of my chemical input, I had lower levels of some chemicals. For example, my BPA was lower because of measures I have taken to protect myself like limiting my intake of canned food. 

Knowing these chemicals are in our homes is concerning, but what’s really alarming for me as a nurse is to realize they are in medical products I was using at work. For instance, before anti-bacterial soap was replaced by gel in most hospitals and clinics, nurses washing their hands multiple times each shift were using the chemical Triclosan. We thought we were cleaning our hands for the protection of our patients, and we were rubbing a dangerous chemical onto our skin!

Nurses use IV pumps and other medical equipment, like ventilators, to help patients heal or even save lives. Learning that they were made with chemicals found to be harmful was alarming and frightening and truly the opposite of our purpose to do no harm. Once I knew the truth, it became difficult for me to administer the life-sustaining fluids and medication that come in these hazardous chemical wrappers—and nurses do this every shift.
 
I think about all we know and have changed to prevent infection from spreading. I hope some day we will be doing the same to prevent the use of these chemicals found in our nursing world.

Prior to the study, I heard about a conference called Clean Med, a wonderful conference concerned with ridding the medical world of toxic chemicals. My hospital sent several people including myself and another nurse as well as employees from other parts of the hospital - dietary, and environmental services.  The impact was amazing.  The hospital developed a more substantial recycling program, changed the food delivery to include more organics and brought in a farmers market, looked at what products could be changed to not include chemicals.  For example, IV bags and tubings were changed to phthalate-free.   The hospital found new IV delivery pumps free of chemicals.
 
On my unit, I dedicated a bulletin board for environmental information for both personal and professional use.  Because I worked with a lot of child-bearing aged nurses who also have small children, I wanted them to know that as they are learning why these changes are happening in their work life, these same chemicals abound in their homes.

I did learn there is some hope. But it is all voluntary, and only a small fraction of hospitals and clinics are doing this.

There are some things we can do ourselves to lessen the chemical assault on our bodies. But there is a lot we cannot do.

We need legislation to help us.
 
We know it can happen. BPA bans have been signed into law in some states for baby bottles and toys. But that is just a beginning. 

There are many more chemicals of concern in the nursing world.  I am concerned about the nurses whose institutions do not either know or care or know not how to implement changes.

That’s why I support The Safe Chemicals Act, a proposed law that will overhaul the way chemicals are approved.  The current version is a good first step but it needs to be strengthened to ensure that chemicals are proven safe before they are put on the market and that chemicals we already know are harmful, like lead and toxic flame retardants, are phased out.

In Washington state, I’ve joined with Physicians for Social Responsibility and dozens of health care providers to urge our congressional representatives to act.  If you are a health care professional, please join us by signing a petition for a stronger Safe Chemicals Act

I am honored to work with the American Nurses Association and relate my own personal interest in improving the world around us. Although I have just recently retired from my much-loved work with children, I am looking forward to continuing the pursuit of lessening the chemical impact on all of our lives.

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