The connection between nursing care and environmental health dates back to Florence Nightingale and the foundation of modern nursing. While caring for patients during wartime, Nightingale brought attention to the importance of clean air and water in the healing process. This remains true today. Having clean air to breathe, clean water to drink and access to a healthy environment leads to improved health.

“Environmental exposures are preventable and nurses are perfectly positioned to lead the healthcare community in advancing environmental health.”

Healthy practices

The Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments (ANHE) is dedicated to educating and supporting the nursing profession to understand the connection between the environment and health. ANHE works with nurses and nursing organizations to increase awareness while promoting practice change and nursing advocacy around environmental factors that impact health.

Exposure to toxic chemicals in our air, water and consumer products, breathing in harmful air pollutants and drinking contaminated water all contribute to harm to public health. These exposures are linked to diseases that are on the rise such as reproductive and neurodevelopmental disorders, certain cancers, asthma and other lung conditions and cardiovascular disorders. These exposures are especially harmful for the very young and elderly, pregnant women and those with chronic conditions.

Fortunately, environmental exposures are preventable and nurses are perfectly positioned to lead the healthcare community in advancing environmental health. Standard 17 of our Nursing Scope and Standards of Practice states “the registered nurse practices in an environmentally safe and healthy manner.” Environmental health topics are applicable to every nurse regardless of specialty and can easily be incorporated into professional practice. When an individual comes into a health facility a nurse can assess whether environmental factors may be contributing to or worsening existing illness. Similarly, nurses can provide education to the people they care for on how to avoid or minimize exposures in order to prevent undue harm.

Promoting sustainability

Nurses can also contribute to sustainability efforts within their healthcare facilities and there are a number of nurses throughout the country whose position within their facility is to focus solely on these efforts. Sustainability activities within healthcare facilities include least-toxic product selection, waste reduction, recycling, energy efficiency and advocating for renewable energy sources.

In order to support this emerging field and need for nurses to address environmental health concerns, inclusion of these topics into nursing curriculum at all levels and in continuing education is essential. This will provide nurses with the necessary knowledge and skills to promote practice change. By addressing environmental health problems, we will see improvements in health outcomes and reduction in healthcare costs.

While practice change and incorporating environmental health concepts into nursing education are essential, in order to truly protect public health, nurses need to move beyond the bedside and advocate for environmentally protective policies that protect the health of our communities, families, and future generations. As nursing has been consistently ranked as the most trusted profession for many years, we are in a unique position to elevate the health perspective relating to environmental and public health. Our voice is trusted and respected, which can bring great change.

Nurses that are able and willing to shift the traditional model of care to integrate environmental health are needed in all practice settings, from hospitals to health departments to schools.