Preparing nurses to engage in their voices about human health and the environment

By Dr. Barbara Sattler Posted Tue, 09/20/2016 - 01:16

What could be more important to human health than air, water, food, and ambient temperature? We can only live for minutes without life sustaining air, hours without life sustaining temperatures, days without water, and weeks without food. And yet each of these elements that are critical to human existence are substantially absent from most health professions curriculum. Dr. Barbara Sattler, a Registered Nurse and USF School of Nursing and Health Professions (SONHP) Professor focuses her academic and professional efforts on the relationship between human health and the environment – air, water, food, and climate change. Through her efforts SONHP now has 4 new Jonas Scholars – graduate nursing students who are focusing their Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) projects on making changes in nursing practice that integrate environmental health concepts and skills.

Barbara SattlerWith a Jesuit grant that Dr. Sattler received this year she is working with Michelle Ruiz, a USF student, to develop a short multimedia educational program that she hopes all of USF’s nursing students will see. Pope Francis’ Encyclical, Laudato SiCare for Our Common Home, is the guiding force in the program. Francis calls upon all of us to step into our roles in caring for Mother Earth and all life. Francis entreats us to especially care for the most vulnerable among us and to recognize that it is they who will suffer the most from the ravages of climate change. The program Dr. Sattler and Ruiz are creating will help nurses to understand how they can engage both personally and professionally to alter the trajectory of climate change and to care for those whose illnesses and injuries may be caused or exacerbated by climate related conditions. Additionally, Francis has asked us to engage in the political and economic decisions that will protect Mother Earth and all of her inhabitants.

In the political realm, Dr. Sattler has been particularly engaged both nationally and also in Sacramento. In her recent meeting at the White House, Dr. Sattler and 24 other nursing leaders from around the country met with the President’s Senior Climate Change Staff to discuss the role of nurses in educating and preparing the public about climate change mitigation and response. Human health is already being impacted by climactic changes that have been further decreasing air quality and increasing lung diseases like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorders. California is being particularly impacted and now has 5 of the 10 worst air polluted cities in the country. As predicted over a decade ago, climate change is contributing to increased frequency and extent of extreme weather conditions including both flooding and droughts across the country. Also, as predicted, we are seeing more frequent and intense fires. The meeting at the White House focused on how we can first educate nurses about climate change and a plan of action that will coalesce the nursing leaders with federal health and environment agencies is in the works.

In California, Dr. Sattler’s efforts have focused primarily on the health threats associated with new techniques that are being used to extract gas and oil, one of which is fracking. She has been working with communities in Kern County and in Los Angeles as well as with the statewide environmentalist community to raise concerns about the health impacts that are being created by current gas and oil practices. One of these practices is the use of fracking wastewater to irrigate almond, grape, “Cutie,” and “Halo” fields. Another practice is placing the wastewater in unlined ponds where the toxic chemicals can leach into the ground and potentially contaminate drinking water aquifers. The third practice is having pumps and wells in very close proximity to schools and day care centers. All these require statutory or regulatory changes that take Dr. Sattler to Sacramento fairly often. She regularly brings nursing and Master of Public Health (MPH) students to these informational meetings and to legislative and regulatory hearings. Preparing nurses to engage in their voices about human health and the environment is a key role that Dr. Sattler is playing. In an up-coming hearing, USF DNP student and Jonas Scholar Vinai Decena will be talking to the Air Resource Board about the health effects of methane gas. There will be many more opportunities for nurses and nursing students to engage in this important work.