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From TX to DC: Nursing and Public Health Students Advocate for Environmental Health

April 15, 2015

When the opportunity arose for nursing and public health students to travel to the East Coast to learn more about the relationship between human health and the environment, one future nurse and UTSA Public Health student was inspired to apply.

Over winter break, student Ursula Solorzano joined UTHSCSA Assistant Professor Adelita G. Cantu, PhD, RN for an environmental health and nursing retreat in Virginia that culminated in a trip to Washington, DC. At the nation’s capital, Ursula along with Lisa Chang and Christine Gadbois two registered nurses, met with Massachusetts Democrat Senators Elizabeth Ann Warren and Ed Markey’s Climate Change staff along with Rhode Island’s Democrat Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and his Climate Change staff. They also visited the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to speak with Janet McCabe, the Acting Deputy Director for the Office of Air and Radiation. These meetings, arranged with the support of the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments, were intended to show nurses’ support for actions that help reduce the effects of climate change.

But what does climate change have to do with nursing and human health? Ursula is currently studying this topic in her Public Health Internship with Dr. Cantu and her nursing students at the UTHSCSA School of Nursing.

“I didn’t know fracking was that much of an issue when it comes to climate change and the health of an individual, but with 353 chemicals from 944 products identified in use for fracking, and the percentage of harm that they are capable of doing to our body reaching all the way to 75% (for skin, eye, respiratory, and GI problems) people really need to realize that they have the power to stop this from continuing to exist in their state in order to prevent their effects from continuing to exist in their lifetime,” notes Ursula Solorzano.

“The predicted impacts of climate change are going to affect the health of not only individuals, but also whole communities. It is very important for nurses to know about this, in order to advocate for the health of their patients,” notes Tessa Toscano, an MSN-CNL student. “It is amazing how many ways a person’s health can be negatively affected. As the earth’s atmosphere heats up due to increasing amounts of greenhouse gases, the poor air quality leads to worsening asthma, while the captured heat leads to more frequent extreme weather events, longer allergy seasons, and warmer climates that disease-carrying vectors thrive in, contributing to Lyme disease and malaria. And, all of these consequences are already being seen as global warming worsens.”

“My family in the Philippines has been tragically affected by many more monsoons in recent years,” says Jaemie Abad, a senior BSN student.  “During the aftermath of many recent storms, my mother and I would make Costco runs for canned and nonperishable foods, and we would ship them over to the Philippines where basic food was in short supply.”   Island nations and low lying coastal regions, even in the U.S., are being threatened by rising sea levels and severe stormy weather – if this trend continues, whole island and coastal communities may be lost.

In addition, the increased frequency and intensity of fires and storms in the U.S. creates a number of challenges for the health care community as they treat injuries, aid displaced families, and address mental health symptoms arising from devastating weather events. Nurses have an active and evolving role in helping to prepare for and respond to disasters, and it is only natural for them to take part in addressing the causative factors of these events.

At the environmental health and nursing retreat, Ursula met with other young nurses and nursing students who were all part of a Young Nursing Leaders Initiative. In addition to studying the effects of climate change, she learned about how our nation’s failed chemical policies allow product manufacturers to formulate products with chemical compounds that are potentially hazardous to human health.  In her meeting on Capitol Hill, the office of Senators Warren and Markey became her ally by championing the reforming of our nation’s chemical policy laws in the interest of protecting public health.

By meeting with nursing leaders and learning about toxic chemicals used in health care settings specifically, Ursula learned a sense of the problem and how it could be possible to be a part of the solution by pushing for the “greening” of hospitals. Tessa, who is interested in being a neonatal intensive care (NICU) nurse, learned: “There are potentially toxic chemicals within the intravenous (IV) tubing used to give sick newborns their lifesaving fluids. There can also be toxic flame-retardant chemicals infused in hospitals’ mattresses and curtains, and even found in knitted infant caps. We need to take a closer look and apply scientific evidence as we choose products in hospitals, because sometimes the risks are greater than the benefits, especially for vulnerable patients like premature babies.”

In addition to advocating for safer and more responsible usage of chemicals in hospitals, another component of “greening” involves finding ways to reduce the hospital’s carbon dioxide emissions. In fact, hospitals in the U.S. are the second largest producers of CO2, a known greenhouse gas that contributes greatly to climate change. “As future nurses, we must know how to make greener choices, because it is in everyone’s best interest – the hospitals, our patients, and healthcare employees, including nurses,” declares Jaemie Abad. “Hospitals can save time, money, and precious resources by investing in ways to reduce their carbon footprints. Patients can enjoy a healthier world, where our air is easier to breathe, our water uncontaminated, and our land productive. Healthcare employees can feel confident knowing that they can practice safely in their work areas, and they can continue doing what they do best – impacting lives for the better.”

Education on environmental health and climate change has the potential to be expanded upon within UTSA Public Health curriculum, and framed as an emerging and unavoidable public health issue.

So what is the next step for UTSA’s new environmental and public health future nursing leader?  She feels empowered to speak to her fellow students, her patients, and her communities on the topic of climate change and its consequences on health.   She can imagine being part of a hospital’s “green team,” or even starting one when it does not exist.    And she realizes that climate change and inadequate chemical policies are having real impacts on human health; the optimal time for advocacy is now.

Ursula was also invited by the March of Dimes foundation to meet with Texas legislators and educate each legislator visited about health needs for children and mothers in Texas. The Texas legislators had several hundred new members, the new legislative members were learning about important issues in Texas, one of those being health issues. Ursula was there to advocate on three important topics; The Importance of the Texas Newborn Screening Program, The Importance of the Texas Birth Defects Registry, and on Improving Postpartum Health for Texas Women. Gladly each legislator visited, showed a continued support on his or her part for each cause.

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