Nurses are integral to every community, and not just from the perspective of simply providing critical medical services. Your field experiences have likely made it clear to you that you impact patients’ lives through your empathy, social sensitivity, and hard-earned knowledge.

One of the often overlooked areas in which nurses are influential is helping to address injustice, even environmental racism. Given how urgent and potentially destructive the climate crisis is, it’s important to understand better this issue and how nurses can help counter it.

The Consequences of Climate Change

Environmental racism occurs when Black and other traditionally marginalized communities are disproportionately affected by climate change, pollution, and other environmental issues. This counters the traditional concept of environmentalism, which states that everyone is affected by ecological disasters. However, more evidence indicates that marginalized communities get the brunt of these disasters due to systemic injustices, which may affect the public health of these communities.

For instance, fossil fuel companies primarily tend to set up shops near minority communities, with 68% of African Americans living within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant. Emissions from these plants can result in community exposure to respiratory and other health issues.

However, such wellness challenges are not limited to the better-known respiratory and cardiovascular risks. The climate can impact vision and eye health, too. People living in neighborhoods exposed to pollution can be more likely to experience glaucoma. Indoor pollution is also an issue, with those who may be unable to invest in adequate filtration systems at risk of experiencing long-term eye damage due to exposure to small particulate matter.

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Even with these exacerbated health issues, marginalized communities may not receive proper treatment. One recent Pew Research study reported that 63% of Black Americans polled believe that their diminished access to quality medical is one of the reasons behind poorer health outcomes. Even if specific communities have access to medical care, the plethora of climate change-related health concerns places a greater demand on the healthcare system already underserving these communities.

Community Education and Outreach

The consequences of climate change concerning environmental racism are concerning. Indeed, such systemic issues can feel so large that it’s often difficult to see what individuals can do to help. Yet, as a nurse, you can powerfully impact the communities you serve.

One of the most important forms of assistance you can provide is improvements in relevant health literacy for minority communities. Once community members know the impacts of climate change on their health, they can be more empowered to make informed decisions surrounding their care and day-to-day preventative measures. Therefore, it’s essential to ensure patients have data about local negative environmental influences, the potential impacts, and steps they can take to safeguard their health.

This may involve working with local public health services to find the right literature addressing your community’s concerns. You might also consider engaging with community outreach programs. Spending time at community centers, workplaces, schools, and universities can be helpful to forums for education, where you can answer questions concerning this issue.

Collaboration on Change

Unfortunately, health literacy is unlikely sufficient to counter environmental racism alone. As with so many forms of social injustice, meaningful change happens at a systemic level. Your perspectives and insights as a nurse in minority communities can be a powerful contribution if you collaborate with initiatives that reduce ecological inequality.

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This may be most effective on a regional level. You can identify local organizations that are dedicated to taking action to address environmental justice. These actions may involve coordinating efforts to provide qualitative data and testimony as supporting evidence of climate-related illness to present to governmental agencies tasked with assigning public health budgets, planning facilities, and creating healthcare policies.

Alternatively, you can offer insights as a medical professional to organizations dedicated to blocking the local introduction of new hazardous industrial businesses. Grassroots organizations like the Mothers of East L.A. have proven successful here. Your assistance can be invaluable as efficacy tends to rely on research and expert testimony.

This isn’t just effective concerning budget assignment and healthcare policy but also in encouraging the adoption of other resources that directly and indirectly affect the environmental connection to health.

For instance, the rise of the digital age has seen the emergence of inventions that can help combat climate change. If local or state governments adopt ambient carbon capture technology to remove carbon dioxide from the air or invest in distributed energy resources (DERs), there’s a chance to mitigate the health issues that disproportionately impact minority communities. As a nurse, you could play an influential role in representing the medical importance of these tools to local government decision-makers. Advocate for how climate-protecting technology makes a difference in community health and could reduce pressure on care resources.

Conclusion

Nurses may not always think about environmental racism in their daily routines, but it’s a hidden undercurrent in the healthcare system. Nurses have a profound potential to stop this injustice before it worsens.

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It’s essential to be mindful of taking everything on your shoulders. Nurses already face a lot of pressure and often unrealistic expectations. When engaging in this social issue, seek support from colleagues, administrators, and community leaders.

Amanda Winstead
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