One USF Nurse’s War on Fracking: A Struggle for Public Health

By Ed Carpenter, Office of Marketing Communications Posted Mon, 08/11/2014 - 17:00

USF’s Barbara Sattler is at the forefront of a growing national movement to shine a public light on the controversial method of hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking, and its adverse health risks.

Fracking uses high-pressure water mixed with sand and toxic chemicals, pumping them deep underground to force open fissures and pump out oil and gas.


Dramatic growth in fracking

Some of the more severe effects of the extraction method include groundwater contamination, difficulty breathing, and severe skin and eye irritations. These and other health issues have been reported across the country by scientists and residents who live near fracking wells. Though fracking has been around since 1949, new technology and cheaper extraction costs have fueled dramatic growth in its use in recent years and stoked a heated public debate about the effects on human health and the environment.

In June, Sattler led the nation’s first multi-day nursing seminar on fracking. A registered nurse and USF professor of public health, Sattler taught nurses from all over California how fracking is done, the health risks associated with it, and how to use online databases to locate fracking wells where they live and work.

The two-dozen nursing professionals also learned public advocacy, including how to talk to regulators and the media, and met with lawmakers in the state’s Capitol.

She had no idea about toxic chemicals

“We took them from 0-60 in a three-day seminar, and it was an amazing success,” says Sattler, who teaches a nursing course on environmental health and fracking at USF.

Gail Davidson, a Kern County nursing consultant and retired nurse, says the conference changed her and other nurses’ perspective. “I live in the largest oil-producing county in the state, so I came to the conference knowing something about the oil industry,” says Davidson. “But I had no idea about fracking and the chemicals being used and how detrimental they can be.”

Sattler’s USF course did much the same for Kate Conant MPH ’14, who was inspired to volunteer for the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments, where she now blogs for the national nurse network about fracking and other environmental health topics.

“The course is extremely valuable, even for students outside the health profession,” Conant says. “It’s about health, environmental stewardship, policy, and political advocacy.”

U.S. nurses speak out on energy policy

Sattler believes it is time to make the transition away from energy sources that cause human health threats and ecological damage and towards a comprehensive energy program that supports and incentivizes safer energy choices. And she’s at the forefront of the nursing profession, including several of its national organizations, pushing for nurses to become more educated and involved on national energy policy.

We need to be more preventative, she writes in “Fracking, the Environment, and Health: New energy practices may threaten public health," an article co-authored with Ruth McDermont-Levy and Nina Kaktina and published in the American Journal of Nursing last summer.

“Nurses can best promote the health of their patients, the community, and the public,” Sattler writes, “by embracing a precautionary approach and supporting energy policies that make human health a priority.”

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