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August 12, 2007 -- Today The Washington Post ran a good story by Matt Zapotosky about efforts by nurses to address climate change as an important public health issue. The piece quotes nurses from the University of Maryland and the American Nurses Association, who argue that global warming can affect nurses' patients in profound ways, including through an increase in heat-related conditions and the aftermath of storms like Hurricane Katrina. We thank Zapotosky and the Post for helping the public see nurses as engaged public health professionals and advocates.

The piece is "Nurses Warm to Campaign Against Climate Change: Public Health Practitioners See Reducing Carbon Dioxide Emissions as Good Preventive Medicine." It reports that increasing numbers of health professionals see climate change as a factor in illness and injuries, and argue for measures like lower carbon dioxide emissions as a way to address these problems. Nurse Brenda Afzal, "director of health programs at the University of Maryland School of Nursing's Environmental Health Education Center," and 20 nurses from her school attended a recent press conference on this issue sponsored by Environment Maryland, an advocacy group. The piece quotes Afzal on why nurses are starting to (in the piece's words) "see the fight against global warming as part of their job":

There's only so much that the public health infrastructure can do to mediate a response to heat events. For me as a public health practitioner, it's becoming increasingly apparent that public health folks need to be working on global warming issues. ... Nurses are becoming engaged and involved and concerned. It's a big thing to ask, but nurses are getting it.

Afzal also points out that excessively hot summers lead to more heat-related deaths and ED visits, and the piece cites statistics that seem to show high numbers of heat-related deaths in Maryland in recent years. The piece suggests that coastal states like Maryland may some day face special threats as a result of rising water levels.

The article also says Kristen Welker-Hood, "a senior policy fellow for the Center for Occupational and Environmental Health" at the ANA, sees global warming as "one of the key topics confronting nurses": "We are the ones who are taking care of people who have these kind of diseases that are being exacerbated or even receiving injuries directly from climate change." Welker-Hood is developing a Web site to educate "members" on the issue, and she "encourages members and hospitals to conserve energy." The piece notes that both quoted nurses

point to Europe's 2003 heat wave and to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 as prime evidence that global warming is a problem that should be of concern to nurses. Nurses simply cannot respond to such large-scale disasters adequately, they said, so a different solution needs to be explored -- a solution that addresses global warming.

The first sentence of the piece is: "Even nurses are starting to catch global warming fever." This could mean that even people as clueless as nurses are seeing the importance of the issue. But given the rest of the article, a better interpretation seems to be that it may not be immediately obvious why health professionals would be especially interested in the issue, which the piece goes on to explain. In doing so, it presents nurses as active public health advocates who think about far-reaching global issues, countering the common view of the profession as a site-specific one limited to mundane physical tasks. Toward the end, the piece actually says that "[n]urses and other scientists argue" that global warming skeptics are in the minority. Nurses "and other scientists"? Of course, the phrase may just mean nurses, and scientists other than the skeptical ones, but we'd like to think the piece is suggesting that nurses like those quoted here are scientists--something the mainstream media rarely does.

We thank Matt Zapotosky and the Post for this piece.

See the article "Nurses Warm to Campaign Against Climate Change: Public Health Practitioners See Reducing Carbon Dioxide Emissions as Good Preventive Medicine" from the August 12, 2007 edition of the Washington Post.



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