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Chemical exposures on the job may be linked to diseases in nurses

First ever national survey finds widespread exposure to chemicals and radiation and almost no mandatory workplace health protections

WASHINGTON — A first ever national survey of nurses’ exposures to chemicals, pharmaceuticals and radiation on the job suggests there are links between serious health problems such as cancer, asthma, miscarriages and children’s birth defects and the duration and intensity of these exposures. The survey included 1,500 nurses from all 50 states.

The survey was conducted by the Washington-based nonprofit Environmental Working Group and are available online at,

Every day, nurses confront low-level but repeated exposures to mixtures of hazardous materials that include residues from medications, anesthetic gases, sterilizing and disinfecting chemicals, radiation, latex, cleaning chemicals, hand and skin disinfection products, and even mercury escaping from broken medical equipment. There are no workplace safety standards to protect nurses from the combined effects of these exposures on their health.

“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, Vice President for Research at Environmental Working Group. “Nurses ingest, touch or breathe residues of any number of these potentially harmful substances as they care for patients, day after day and face potential but unstudied health problems as a result.”

According to the survey results, nurses who were exposed regularly—at least once a week—to the chemicals had increased rates of cancer, asthma and miscarriages. Nurses who were pregnant when they were exposed to certain chemicals were more likely to have children with birth defects than nurses not exposed to the chemicals.

Chemical exposure seemed to have an especially large impact on the rate of musculoskeletal defects in children of pregnant nurses. Nurses with frequent exposure to sterilizing agents and anesthetic gases were seven to nine times more likely to have children with musculoskeletal defects than their unexposed peers.

The Centers for Disease Control proposed a National Occupational Exposure Survey for the health care industry in 2002.

To date, no such survey has been initiated to better understand the range of potentially hazardous chemical exposure in the health care industry and related illnesses.

"For many of the toxic chemicals in hospitals there are safer alternative or safer processes. We must make these healthier choices for the sake of our patients, nurses and all hospital employees," said Barbara Sattler, RN, DrPH, FAAN, Professor and Director of the Environmental Health Education Center at the University of Maryland School of Nursing."

MNA has worked for the last 10 years to teach frontline nurses about the hazards they are exposed to at work and how personal protective equipment and safe work practices will reduce these exposures. On the MNA website, using the Health and Safety page, you can learn more about many of the healthcare workplace exposures," said Evie Bain, Associate Director in the MNA’s Division of Occupational Health and Safety "MNA activism, legislation and labor/management actions have often reduced or eliminated exposures to substances such as natural rubber latex, glutaraldehyde, needlestick injuries and mercury. OSHA and NIOSH also provide information on safe work practices to protect the health of all nurses, their unborn children as well as their patients. These materials are available at the websites and ."

Environmental Working Group is a nonprofit research organization based in Washington, DC that uses the power of information to protect human health and the environment. The survey was co-sponsored by the nonprofit group Health Care Without Harm, the University of Maryland’s Environmental Health Education Center and the American Nurses Association. The MNA consulted on the wording of the questionnaire.