(NaturalNews) Nurses are exposed to a wide variety of toxic chemicals and radiation in the course of their jobs, and the degree of this exposure correlates with their risk of cancer, asthma, miscarriages and birth defects, according to a nationwide survey conducted by the American Nurses Association, the Environmental Working Group (EWG), Health Care Without Harm and the Environmental Health Education Center at the University of Maryland School of Nursing.
"Nurses are exposed daily to scores of different toxic chemicals and other hazardous materials whose cumulative health risks have never been studied," said Jane Houlihan, the EWG's vice president for research. "Nurses ingest, touch or breathe residues of any number of these potentially harmful substances as they care for patients, day after day."
In the first ever national survey examining the health effects of nurses' exposure to chemicals, the groups surveyed 1,500 nurses from 50 states about their exposure to 11 common health care chemicals, including anesthetic gases, hand disinfectants, cleaning substances, latex, pharmaceutical products including chemotherapy and antiretroviral drugs, mercury, personal care products such as shampoo and soap, and sterilization chemicals.
In addition to these known or potential toxins, nurses are also habitually exposed to radiation. In spite of a recommendation from the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention in 2002, no comprehensive study of toxic workplace exposure in nurses has ever been conducted, let alone investigations into the health effects of cumulative exposure to this wide variety of toxins.
Even a seemingly innocuous substance like a household cleaner can be dangerous over long-term exposure.
"Generally, we think the cleaner the better -- the cleaner something is, the safer it is," said Lisa Hartmayer, a nurse from the University of California at San Francisco. "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."
According to Hartmayer, many nurses complain of headaches, runny noses and watery eyes each time they use sanitary wipes to clean off medical equipment, which they must do several times each day.
Upon analyzing the results of the survey, researchers found that nurses who were exposed to toxic substances at least once per week had higher rates of asthma, cancer and miscarriage than nurses who were exposed less frequently.
"I know a woman who had eight miscarriages while she was working in health care," said Lauri Hoagland, a nurse practitioner from Napa, CA. "There haven't been any studies, but if you work in health care, you know something's happening. There isn't enough information and there aren't enough rules for hospitals to follow."
The children of pregnant nurses who were exposed to chemicals were more likely to have birth defects than the children of nurses who had not been exposed while pregnant. This correlation held particularly strongly for muscoloskeletal defects. Pregnant nurses who were exposed to anesthetics or sterilizing agents were seven to nine times more likely to give birth to children with such defects than nurses who had not been exposed.
In spite of this danger, the survey found that there are few if any workplace safety standards in place to limit nurses' exposure to hazardous substances and radiation.
"As much as we rely on nurses to protect us when we're sick, we're not protecting nurses in return," Houlihan said. "They face a diverse range of exposures in the workplace that really could pose significant health risks."
According to Houlihan, most nurses are not even aware that they are exposed daily to situations that could result in such serious health consequences. Hartmayer agreed with this assessment.
"The biggest problem I see is that nurses don't know they're being exposed," Hartmayer said. "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. I think the damage is being done quietly."
According to Barbara Sattler, director of the Environmental Health Education Center at the University of Maryland School of Nursing, there is no need to expose nurses to many of these risks.
"For many of the toxic chemicals in hospitals there are safer alternative or safer processes," she said. "We must make these healthier choices for the sake of our patients, nurses and all hospital employees."
"This survey is a call to action for nurses to demand the use of safer products and protective measures to control exposures to hazardous agents in the workplace," said Anna Gilmore Hall, executive director of Health Care Without Harm.
Some hospitals have already begun implementing such measures. Many hospitals in the San Francisco Bay Area no longer use latex gloves because of the allergy risk, for example, and some are reducing their use of vinyl on hospital premises due to the toxic chemicals used in the manufacturing of the material. The Stanford University Medical Center and Lucile Packard Children's Hospital now gives a comprehensive physical exam to all nurses upon hiring them, and once per year after that. This exam includes monitoring the chemical loads in their bodies.
According to Beverly Tobias, director of occupational health services for Stanford University Medical Center and Lucile Packard Children's Hospital, it is not just nurses who can be harmed by the many toxic substances used in hospitals, but also the patients themselves.
"We have a lot of really, really sick people," she said. "We can't have a lot of foreign elements that are going to harm them on top of what they already have."