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Nursing and Health Scholar Seeks Environmental Justice For All

Laura Anderko

April 20, 2010 – Nursing and health studies professor Laura Anderko developed an interest in environmental health nearly two decades ago after an encounter with a 16-year-old mother.

The Chicago native, then-director of a home health agency in Illinois, paid a routine visit to the new mother at her home in a low-income area next to the Fox River.

“Her baby was born without a brain,” she recalls.

And the mother had brought the infant home to die.

“As a nurse, I counseled her,” Anderko recalls. “But I walked out of the house thinking, ‘How could a young woman who did all the right things have a baby without a brain?’ ”

She later discovered the area’s water quality may have played a significant role in the baby’s health outcome. The river had been tainted with neurotoxins and other industrial pollutants flowing from nearby industries located upstream.

“The fact is there are huge disparities in the quality of the environment in lower-income communities,” says Anderko, the Scanlon Chair in Values Based Health Care. “Achieving environmental justice will require a bold commitment to a values-based approach where we care about people, including the impact of the environment where they live, work and play.”

In an effort to push forward with that commitment, Anderko has helped plan an Earth Day conference, “First Do No Harm: Partnerships for Patient Safety Through Sustainability and Evidence-Based Design,” at Georgetown on April 22.

The conference – a collaboration among the School of Nursing & Health Studies, Perkins+Will architectural firm and the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality – will showcase health and science scholars working on environmental issues affecting patient safety and the design of sustainable health care facilities.

“The conference will highlight this emerging science and yield a focus group of experts to help develop a research agenda,” Anderko says.

Toxic substances often can be found in health care products – such as IV bags containing the PVC chemical compounds and mercury-filled thermometers and older model blood pressure monitors – as well as cleaning solutions in health care facilities, she says. Those toxins can lead to poor health outcomes not only for patients, but health care workers.

Caring for Others

Aside from focusing on facility environments, Anderko’s other research has been published in numerous publications. Her most recent study, published in the January/February issue of the Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic, & Neonatal Nursing, suggests children exposed to prenatal and environmental tobacco smoke are nearly three times more likely to experience learning disabilities compared to children who were not exposed.

She also serves on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Children’s Health Protection Advisory Committee, where she had a role in recently launching an educational website for health professionals on the benefits and risks of fish consumption.

Kathleen Maas Weigert, executive director of the Center for Social Justice Research, Teaching and Service, says Anderko’s focus on health care and environmental equity aligns with the Jesuit traditions of cura personalis – or care for the whole person – and social justice.

“Laura has underscored the importance of the environment and health disparities in our collective work toward social justice,” says Maas Weigert. “We must ensure that vulnerable populations, in particular, do not suffer a disproportionate burden of disease because of substandard environmental quality, and I know that Laura remains at the forefront of this critical field.

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