Recollections of the Flint water crisis are still vivid in the minds of many Americans. Responses to this crisis in the winter of 2014 needed to be swift and comprehensive. And while it may be hard to believe that access to clean, adequate, and equitable water in America remains at risk, advocates for environmental justice call for continued vigilance in ensuring access to safe and clean water. In this column, we discuss the need to ensure equitable access to this life sustaining resource through advocacy and legislative action with Katie Huffling, RN, MS, CNM, who is the executive director of the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments.

Katie Huffling, RN, MS, CNM

Ms. Huffling, tell me a bit about yourself and how you became involved in addressing environmental health issues?

I trained as a nurse-midwife at the University of Maryland School of Nursing. While there, I had the great fortune to meet Barbara Sattler and Brenda Afzal. They were leading the only environmental health center at a school of nursing in the country. Through their mentorship, I learned about the many ways that environmental toxicants could affect reproductive health and the health of the growing fetus. It is an area that many of us received little or no content on in nursing school, yet they can have significant negative health impacts across the lifespan. I became very passionate about environmental health issues and when the opportunity arose to work on this full time with the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments, I jumped at the chance! We are the only national nursing organization focusing solely on the intersection of health and the environment. I now work with nurses and nursing organizations around the country on a number of environmental health issues such as climate change, clean air and water, toxic chemicals, and inclusion of environmental health into nursing curriculum.

Can you give me an example of an environmental health issue that is affecting health right now?

Clean water is one of the greatest public health advancements of the 20th century. As nurses, we recognize clean water is essential to health and a basic human right. It is also essential for providing nursing care. Nurses rely on water to wash their hands, give newborns their first baths, and is essential for the clean linens utilized throughout health care.

Here in the United States we have an expectation that when we turn on the tap clean, healthy water is going to come out. Unfortunately, for many throughout the country this is not the case. Every year, millions of Americans experience waterborne illnesses. Waterborne illnesses are caused by a variety of sources, including waterborne pathogens such as viruses or bacteria, human or animal waste, heavy metals such as lead or arsenic, or industrial pollutants. Certain populations may also be more likely to be exposed to unsafe drinking water, including low-income populations and some communities of color.

I know you have been a champion for environmental justice for some time now. What are some key legislative priorities with regard to clean and safe water?

To address a number of urgent clean water issues, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed an update to the Clean Water Act, originally passed in 1972. The Clean Water Act needed to be updated due to the great expansion of knowledge regarding upstream sources of pollution. Researchers now understand how important protecting headwaters and other upstream water sources are to clean water downstream. There was also confusion concerning which waters were protected by the Clean Water Act. This followed two Supreme Court Decisions in 2001 and 2006, directly impacting the drinking water for 1 in 3 Americans.

In 2015, the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers finalized the Clean Water Rule (CWR). This rule was only finalized after an intensive stakeholder process in which they held over 400 meetings and received over 1 million comments, 87% of which were in favor of the rule. The Clean Water Rule clarifies which “waters of the US” will be regulated under the Clean Water Act. These include traditional navigable waters, tributaries, a small number of waters that have a significant nexus to traditional navigable waters, interstate waters, or territorial seas, and also exempts certain waters such as puddles, ornamental ponds and rain gardens, and continues certain farm exemptions.

After the rule was finalized, a number of plaintiffs sued the EPA. The rule was suspended by the Sixth Circuit court until the outcome of these suits. This stay was overruled in February 2018. During this time the Trump Administration announced they were going to suspend the rule until 2020. This suspension was overruled by the courts in August and the CWR must now be enforced in 26 states.

The issues that the CWR addresses are very important to environmental justice communities. If the rule is repealed, low-income communities and communities of color—who already face disproportionate exposures from other environmental hazards—may be most impacted. These communities, along with rural communities, are more likely to have poor infrastructure that is not able to handle contaminants in the water. These communities also may not have the resources to upgrade their water systems. They may also be more likely to rely on well water that can be more susceptible to pollution from upstream sources.

Turning to implications for nursing, why and how can nurses get involved in addressing this issue?

The EPA has announced they plan to permanently repeal the CWR; however, this repeal has not been finalized yet. If they repeal this rule, the drinking water for over 117 million Americans could be negatively impacted. Once this official announcement occurs, the nursing voicing will be crucial to protecting this vital public health regulation. There are many ways nurses can be active in this policy arena:

  • Watch the new webinar from the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments for one-hour free CE that reviews the CWR and provides opportunities for action (https://envirn.org/the-clean-water-rule).
  • Sign this petition to Acting Administrator Wheeler asking to him to keep the CWR in place.
  • Call your Senators and Congress people and ask them to support the CWR.
  • Engage your professional nursing organizations—write a newsletter article and ask them to write a letter to Acting Administrator Wheeler or to Congress. As the most trusted profession, when our nursing organizations actively engage on issues such as clean water, Congress listens.

The most vulnerable among us are harmed by dirty water. By actively engaging on clean water issues, nurses can help policymakers and the public make the connection that clean water is essential to health.

Are there additional resources we should be aware of?

The American Nurses Association’s Principles of Environmental Health for Nursing Practice with Implementation Strategies (which is available online here).

The Alliance frequently offers webinars (many with free CE) on a variety of environmental health topics. We’re free to join and if you sign up for our newsletter you will be notified of upcoming webinars and opportunities for action. To learn more, visit https://envirn.org.

Janice Phillips, PhD, FAAN, RN

Janice M. Phillips, PhD, FAAN, RN, is an associate professor at Rush University College of Nursing
and the director of nursing research and health equity at Rush University Medical Center.

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