A message on health and climate change, and a call to all nurses #
This past summer, while working from home and in search of my “new normal” amid the COVID-19 pandemic, I was faced with shortness of breath and burning eyes due to smoke from the West Coast forest fires. I looked out my window and saw the burnt orange sun rise over the Cascades, but the mountain range was hidden by the smoke. Is this our new normal?
In addition to the forest fires, other pervasive elements impact the air we breathe and the climate we live in. Burning fossil fuels such as coal and gas increases carbon dioxide and particulate matter in our atmosphere and contributes to planetary temperature increases. In terms of global heat, this past September was the hottest on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Whether one thinks the planet’s increasing temperature is man-made, or a cyclical natural process the Earth has gone through over millennia, the results are the same: Our planet is getting warmer, and this is affecting human health and the environment.
Particulate matter and health outcomes are highly correlated. Particulate fine matter, known as PM2.5, comes from combustion; fireplaces, car engines and coal or natural gas-fired power plants are all major PM2.5 sources. PM2.5 particles settle into the lungs, along with the heart, brain and every other vital organ, and damage our forests, waterways, soils and ecosystems. Along with greenhouse gases (GHG), PM2.5 is a major contributor to climate change. The resulting extreme weather events can promote infectious diseases, increase vector and water-borne illnesses and create disturbances in food and clean water distribution, thereby impacting the health of vulnerable populations — children, the elderly, those with chronic diseases, people of color and underserved populations.
Now is the time to get off the fossil-fuel treadmill and move to a more socially just fuel economy. Nick Manning, who leads the climate change workgroup at the Washington Chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility (WPSR) states, “As we slowly recover from these recent manifestations of our fossil fuel addiction, we must also deal with the underlying conditions that will lead us here again if ignored. Climate change is a health issue; just like smoking in the U.S., it will take the trusted voice of nurses to change our behavior.” He further states, “COVID-19 has made failings in our health care system obvious, and climate change will put stress on those same weak spots — leading to really dire consequences for community health. Therefore, nurses must help deal with climate change to protect the health of their patients. Watching major fossil fuel projects in Tacoma and Kalama being seriously debated this fall, while the West burned to such an extent that the air was unbreathable, is unacceptable.”
As registered nurses, we are charged with protecting the health of our patients and the environment. In fact, environmental health is the foundation of our practice. Florence Nightingale noted that “nature alone cures,” adding, “Nursing puts patients in the ‘best conditions’ for nature to act upon them. The health of the home and community are critical components in an individual’s health.” She also stressed the importance of a healthy environment to promote healing.
As nurses, we are bound to our standards of practice and our codes of ethics. The American Nurses Association (ANA) says in Standard 17 of its “Nursing Scope and Standards of Practice”: “The registered nurse practices in an environmentally safe and healthy manner, which outlines strategies to promote a healthy and safe community and practice setting.” Moreover, Provision 9 of ANA’s “Guide to the Code of Ethics for Nurses with Interpretive Statements” states: “The new code calls upon nurses to be concerned for eco-justice, in part because of the interdependence of human health, the health of the environment and ecology.”
Nurses are well positioned to address climate change and improve the health of our communities. By partnering with legislative leaders and community partners, meaningful zero-carbon polices can be developed to reduce GHG emissions. WPSR and the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments (ANHE) each have climate change workgroups that provide the science and systems needed to promote advocacy. In addition, ANHE has two programs to draw from: Nurses Draw Down and the Nursing Collaborative on Climate Change and Health. Let’s use our voices and our collegial collaborations to advocate for the planet and human health.
- National Defense Research Committee (NDRC, n.d.). The Particulars of PM 2.5: Why particulate matter…matters. https://www.nrdc.org/onearth/particulars-pm-25.
- Nightingale, F. (1946). Notes on Nursing: What it Is, and What it Is Not. New York: Appleton-Century.
- American Nurses Association (2015). The Nursing Scope and Standards of Practice, 3rd ed. Silver Spring, Maryland: American Nurses Association.
- American Nurses Association (2015). Guide to the Code of Ethics for Nurses with Interpretive Statements: Development, Interpretation, and Application, 2nd ed. Silver Spring, Maryland: American Nurses Association.