Toxic Substances at Work
There’s a lot of talk these days about “toxic workplaces” and how nurses and other healthcare workers suffer from workplaces that are rife with incivility, bullying, and other interpersonal issues. However, some facilities are also toxic in the literal sense of the word. Is your workplace a physically healthy environment?
Hospitals are places where patients come to get well, and where nurses and their colleagues spend hours every day. However, some of us are aware that many hospitals and other healthcare facilities are actually not the healthiest places to spend time. While this is ironic, it’s important to give this issue some very serious consideration.
In order to remain clean, healthcare facilities use many different types of cleaners to maintain cleanliness for both patients and workers. It is often surprising that maintenance crews will choose to use heavily fragrant and strong-smelling cleaning products on any unit, including those where patients who have compromised respiratory conditions are cared for. Floor cleaners, waxes and other products can be laced with synthetic fragrances and other agents that may cause dyspnea, sore throat, headache, and a range of symptoms that can also be experienced by staff members.
Additionally, some products used to coat walls and other surfaces may “off-gas” formaldehyde and other chemicals that can be deleterious to human health.
While latex allergies are now commonly understood and most facilities have made substitutions to prevent the further spread of this allergy that has been rampant among healthcare workers, there are other substances with which you may come in contact that can have similar effects.
Soaps, hand sanitizers, lotions and other hygiene products may contain strong fragrances and chemicals that may cause an allergic dermatological reaction. Other symptoms may include headache, confusion, sore throat, eye irritation, dyspnea, and a multitude of potential reactions.
PVC (vinyl plastic) contains phthalates, dioxin and hazardous materials that can impact human health. From IV tubing to gloves, many products with which you come in contact every day may be leaching dangerous chemicals into your bloodstream.
Flame retardants are added to many materials in the hospital environment, and these substances can leach into water, dust and air, eventually making their way into our bodies. The breast milk of American women contains the highest levels of “brominated flame retardants” in the world, and BFRs can have adverse health impacts on young children.
Pesticides, mercury, and the chemicals found in plastic medical equipment are other sources of environmental toxicity in the healthcare industry.
Action Versus Fear
We can live in fear of these substances, or we can take action and request that our workplaces research alternatives to the many toxic substances that endanger us and our patients. Health Care Without Harm and The Healthier Hospitals Initiative are two organizations that are raising awareness of these dangers, and nurses and other healthcare workers can demand that their workplaces take these dangers seriously, for the benefit of patients and employees alike.
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