Healthcare workers are a hidden, next generation treasure of environmentalists. This group includes, but is not limited to, doctors, such as those specializing in infectious disease, nurses of all disciplines in heath care, respiratory therapists, occupational therapists, nutritionists, dietitians, pharmacists, and emergency rescue response workers.
The old colloquy, “healthier environment, healthier people” is a message that made its début by the public health community during the Roman era. The Romans had it right by recognizing that “prevention” is the means to better human health. They set the foundation for empirical observation between health and the environment and correlated diminished human health with increased unhealthy environments. In other words, the environment was the litmus test for human health. Air, water, sewage, and uncleanliness of our own bodies maturate disease and harm.
Public dialogue through policy changes on preservation and protection of the environment is important. So are the initiatives by individuals and businesses to lessen their environmental footprint; however, it is imperative that that the pendulum shifts to a dialogue that includes the human health impacts. Our environment is overtaxed and sick from increasing human-made chemical pollutants and technological harms.
This stressed environmental system affects human health systems: respiratory system (asthma induced from various environmental triggers); nervous system (heavy metal toxicity); circulatory system (heat stroke from earth’s rising temperatures); skin (transmission of mosquito borne illnesses from changing habitat); reproductive system (breast milk of American women contains the highest levels of BFRs or brominated flame retardants in human breast milk found anywhere in the world); and immune system (autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis can result from mercury and lead poisoning).
As healthcare professionals pledge the Hippocratic oath of “First, do no harm”, all aspects of healthcare should be carried out in a way that is not damaging to public health as well as the environment. Forward-thinking healthcare systems must therefore be ecologically sustainable.
Environmental harms impacts those at most risk. These vulnerable populations include the following: infants and young children, pregnant women, the developing fetus, elderly, low-income and poor individuals, people in the inner-cities and rural communities, and those who are immunocompromized or suffer long-term chronic diseases.
Consequently, the average citizen may now experience immediate and life long physical, mental and social health impacts from the rapid advancement of global warming. Through unprecedented changes in weather patterns, we feel the affects in our back yard, from the transmission of rare diseases to increased floods, droughts and widespread fires.
Building upon the Roman’s mission, and emphasizing their premise of “prevention”, health care workers and organizations are working to thwart the barrage of environmental harms to human health. Organizations like Health Care Without Harm (HCWH), Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), Hospitals for a Healthy Environment (H2E) and conferences like CleanMed 2007 and FoodMed 2007 are playing their part in prevention. In addition, monthly technical groups like Healthcare Environmental Awareness and Resource Reduction Team (HEARRT) are addressing health issues within the health care industry.
Minnesota’s publics dialogue on resource conservation, sustainability, renewable energy use, carbon emissions reduction, and other important environmental topics of concern are also important; however, it is imperative that that the pendulum shifts toward a public dialogue that includes more discussion on environmental health impacts.
This balance is needed. Environmental harm on health will be the next global warming crisis. Commingling work of the health care professionals with the environmental community can help foster and serve as a means to prevent harm to individuals and communities in Minnesota.
Perhaps it is time to be more reflective and bold like the Romans, who went one step further by believing that prevention was more important than curing the disease. To expand your knowledge on the environmental links to health use the resources below and sign-up for a list-serve with Environmental Health News.
A long time resident of MN, Linda Lindquist has taught nursing students in clinics, local hospitals through Inver Hills Community College and was an inpatient nurse in the float pool at United Hospital in St. Paul. Prior to nursing, she worked in non-profit, private industry and governmental agency settings on environmental market development initiatives in the Twin Cities. Linda recently moved to Baltimore, MD to attend the University of Maryland’s graduate nursing program to study community/public health nursing with an environmental heath specialty. Lindquist_Linda@hotmail.com 612-743-6455.
Environmental Health and Nursing Practice, Barbara Sattler & Jane Lipscomb, Springer Publishing, 2003.
Having Faith: An Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood, Sandra Steingraber, Perseus Publishing, 2001.
St. Paul, MN, 651-201-5000 or 888-345-0823 o health.state.mn.us
Minnesota Technical Assistance Program’s Healthcare Environmental Awareness and Resource Reduction Team (HEARRT)
University of Minnesota