Many of us hate going to hospitals, even to visit sick loved ones. We find ourselves walking fast down the corridor, unconsciously holding our breath, sensing the energy and smell of disease in the air. Now a new report from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) warns that nurses may risk their health working in hospitals — and not because of the free-floating germ stew brought in by ill patients, but because of the abundance of toxic substances in the hospital environment
“Nurses ingest, touch or breathe residues of any number of … potentially harmful substances as they care for patients, day after day, and face potential but unstudied health problems as a result,” says Jane Houlihan, Vice President for Research at EWG.
After surveying 1500 nurses nationwide, the group discovered that those exposed to toxins in hospitals at least once a week have an increased incidence of cancer, asthma, birth defects in unborn children, and miscarriage. In fact, children born to nurses who were exposed to the offending substances at least once a week for nine months were nine times more likely to be born with musculoskeletal defects.
What does this have to do with you, a non-nurse who rarely enters a hospital environment? Well, here’s a list of some of the toxins implicated in the survey: hand disinfectants, cleaning products; latex; personal care products including shampoo and soap; medications, and sterilization substances, including sanitary wipes. Sounds like the typical array of substances found at the health club, at the mechanic’s shop, in any janitor’s closet within any public building, in most “clean” restaurants, in your children’s school building…or in your house. Places where you spend lots of time, soaking up the toxins, unsuspecting. You probably “ingest, breathe, or touch” some combination of these substances at least once a week, even if you use all-natural products at home.
Lisa Hartmayer, a nurse at the UCSF Medical Center, says, “”The biggest problem I see is that nurses don’t know they’re being exposed. It’s not like nurses are saying, ‘I can’t go to work because of chemical exposure.’ It’s more like they don’t feel well, and they don’t know why.”
Pity long-term patients who, with their compromised immune systems, find themselves assaulted with the same toxins that debilitate nurses. And pity you, if you hang out in an office that gets cleaned regularly, or if you wash your hands in the public bathroom, or if your coworkers slather on personal care products and perfumes in your presence — or if you use these products yourself.
As the articulate Ms. Hartmayar says, “Generally, we think the cleaner the better — the cleaner something is, the safer it is. But that’s not always the case. We use everyday cleaners that have chemicals; there’s soap we use on our hands. I don’t believe there’s strong enough research to tell us what happens with constant exposure.”
We may not know for sure, but thanks to the EWG report, we now have a good indication — and a whole bunch more reasons to detox regularly.