Nurses Constant Exposure to Chemicals Linked to Diseases

The duration and intensity of nurses’ exposure to chemicals, pharmaceuticals and radiation on the job could contribute to health problems such as cancer, asthma, miscarriages and children’s birth defects, according to a recently released survey.

The review, which is the first of its kind, included 1,500 nurses from all 50 states. It was conducted by four organizations – Environmental Working Group, the Environmental Health Education Center at the University of Maryland School of Nursing, the American Nurses Association and Health Care Without Harm.

Nurses, according to the review, are routinely exposed to low-level exposures of mixtures of hazardous materials that include residues of medications, anesthetic gases, chemicals and radiation!

The Findings

According to the survey results, children born to nurses reporting high exposures to these chemicals (at least once a week for nine months) were up to two times more likely to be born with a congenital defect than children born to nurses with low or no exposures to these agents, and up to nine times more likely to suffer from musculoskeletal defects at birth.

In addition, nurses reporting high exposures to radiation during pregnancy (at least once a week for nine months) disclosed a 36 percent higher cancer incidence among their children than nurses exposed less often or not at all. Nurses reporting high exposures to ethylene oxide and antineoplastic drugs – drugs that inhibit and combat the development of tumors – also reported up to 20 percent higher incidence in miscarriage, on average, than nurses with lower or no exposure.

Nurses reporting high exposures (at least once a week for at least 10 years) to medications of any type reported a 14 percent increase in cancer incidence relative to nurses with low or no exposure. For the nurses reporting high exposure to antineoplastic drugs, this jumped to an over 40 percent increase in cancer incidence relative to nurses with low or no exposure. In addition, nurses with high exposures to radiation disclosed a 20 percent higher incidence of breast cancer.

Asthma rates increased by up to 50 percent for nurses reporting high exposures to disinfecting and sterilizing agents, housekeeping chemicals, and latex, compared to nurses with lower exposures to these hazards.

To make matters worse, there are no workplace safety standards to protect nurses from the combined effects of these exposures on their health, according to the survey’s collaborators.

Safer Alternatives are Available

“Nurses are exposed daily to scores of different toxic chemicals and other hazardous materials whose cumulative health risks have never been studied,” said Jane Houlihan, vice president for research at Environmental Working Group. “Nurses ingest, touch or breathe residues of any number of these potentially harmful substances as they care for patients, day after day and face potential but unstudied health problems as a result.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) proposed a National Occupational Exposure Survey for the health care industry in 2002. To date, no such survey has been initiated to better understand the range of potentially hazardous chemical exposure in the health care industry and related illnesses.

According to Barbara Sattler, RN, DrPH, FAAN, professor and director of the Environmental Health Education Center at the University of Maryland School of Nursing, the survey is a call to action for nurses around the country to demand the use of safer products and protective measures to control exposure to hazardous agents in the workplace.

"For many of the toxic chemicals in hospitals there are safer alternative or safer processes. We must make these healthier choices for the sake of our patients, nurses and all hospital employees," she said.

According to the organizations, the survey was extremely detailed, but it wasn’t a controlled, statistically designed study. Results of the survey can be found at

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