Courtesy Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments EESI recently sat down with Katie Huffling, the Director of Programs for the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments (ANHE) , to discuss ANHE’s mission, its work on hydraulic fracturing (aka fracking) and the role that health care providers play in advocating for healthy environments.

EESI: Can you tell us about the history of Nurses for Healthy Environments?

Environmental quality is directly linked to human health. Environmental issues such as climate change, chemical exposure, air pollution, and food safety have the potential to negatively impact community health. Nurses are our boots on the ground, directly interacting with patient populations and they are very concerned about the health of their patients.

Unfortunately, environmental health is not part of the majority of healthcare provider education. ANHE was founded in 2008 to begin filling this educational need as well as provide a centralized organization for the significant number of nurses and nursing organizations already involved in environmental health. Today, ANHE has over 200 nurses that are actively engaged in working groups, with a total membership of over 3,000 nurses. Many of the state and national nursing organizations are also part of the ANHE coalition.

EESI: What issues does ANHE focus on and who are your partners?

ANHE is educating nurses on environmental health so they can continue to be the best possible advocates for their patients. As the only nursing organization that looks at every aspect of environmental health, ANHE has four working groups; research, education, practice, and policy advocacy. Membership consists of nurses who are passionate about a wide variety of environmental health topics. Nursing is a very collaborative field and ANHE works with several other organizations to advance patient protection. Some partners include Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families , as well as Coming Clean ; we are also a member of the U.S. Climate Action Network . ANHE strives to be a very inclusive organization and invites all interested parties to participate in our monthly working group conference calls.

EESI: What are the connections between climate change and public health and how is ANHE addressing them?

Climate change has been linked to negative health impacts. It contributes to a variety of actions that impact health, such as heat waves, poor air quality, water availability and quality as well as increased mosquito-borne illnesses. A 2012 survey of nurses’ outlooks on climate change found that a majority felt that health-related impacts of climate change would be felt globally. However, 35 percent of respondents did not think their own patient populations would face any health impacts resulting from climate change. Additionally, less than 40 percent of survey respondents felt they were adequately prepared to address health-related effects of climate change. These findings reveal the importance of educating health care professionals about the symptoms of climate change-related illnesses and disease, and also of providing policy guidance to drive federal legislation that will impact human health in the face of climate change and other environmental issues.

EESI: Right now, hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is primarily framed as an environmental and economic issue. Why is ANHE focused on fracking?

Fracking itself can have a whole host of health impacts, from potential drinking water degradation to air pollution. Additionally, regions that are seeing a huge increase in fracking activity have seen an increase in the rate of Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs). In general, healthcare professionals aren’t on the lookout for these unexpected potential health impacts, so ANHE is providing education to healthcare professionals on these topics. To date, there has not been any systematic documentation of health impacts that may occur from fracking, so there is a lack of knowledge.

Nurses are finding themselves in a very difficult position, since fracking is a very contentious topic in many communities. For instance, it can be difficult to impossible for healthcare professionals to obtain proprietary information on chemical mixtures that workers or communities may have been exposed to. ANHE is providing them with the tools they need to address all the potential health impacts that may be happening in their communities. Additionally, ANHE is providing resources that will help communities prepare for fracking – by providing education on water testing, exposure testing and other tools. ANHE has also created fact sheets for patients, policymakers and communities on the potential health impacts of fracking.

Interview by Jessie Stolark

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