Environmental Health, Pregnancy, and Progress: An Interview with Katie Huffling

As the nation confronts mounting health problems stemming from environmental toxins, such as lead-contaminated water and synthetic air pollutants, the Jonas Center has stepped up to support doctoral nursing students focused on environmental health. The Jonas Nurse Leader Scholars Program will expand to endorse eight scholars at institutions across the country committed to studying the consequences of these pollutants.

We spoke with Katie Huffling, RN, CNM, a certified nurse-midwife and the Director of the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments about her involvement in environmental health research and her perspective on the unique influence of nurses on health policy.

What do you think are the most important environmental health issues we are facing today?

The biggest issue is climate change. The U.S. Global Change Research Program just released an assessment on climate change and health (See “The Impact of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment”). Climate change has a huge impact on health across the board, and this is something we definitely need to address.

I think another large issue is the exposure to chemicals, whether through the products we use, furniture in our homes, or pesticides being used. We are exposed to chemicals every day. There is more and more science pointing to a link between fetal exposures and lifelong health changes implicated in chronic diseases like asthma, obesity and diabetes.

Whereas in Europe, they have REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals), in the United States, the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 has been the only major piece of environmental legislation that has never been updated and it’s completely ineffective. Only five chemicals have been banned since 1976.

The public has a sense that if chemicals are being used in products, the manufacturers have had to test their safety, but they don’t. One of the advocacy issues my organization (Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments) has been working on has been to get new legislation passed to strengthen chemical policies in the U.S. Products need to be safe before they are put on the market.

Tell us about the assessment tool you created for pregnant women. How does it work? Has it been effective for preventative care?

When I was in private practice, I developed this checklist tool and would use it with my patients during their first visit, early on in pregnancy when we have a lot of time to teach and talk. The tool addresses all of the things [women] have control over in their lives and homes. It asks, Are you using pesticides in your home? Do you use air fresheners and strongly scented products? Things we know contain harmful chemicals that they have control over.

The tool has checkboxes and spaces for questions. At the end of the checklist, there’s an information box that tells them how to reduce exposure. Pregnant women can bring this resource home with them as a reference sheet. They now know not to buy this product and know to eat these fruits and vegetables free of pesticides.

I found it very effective in my practice, and I know there are practices around the country using it. I think it’s a great teaching tool. I would love to see someone do research to test its overall effectiveness. The women I worked with definitely had positive remarks about it.

Want to learn more? You can read our interview with Dr. Barbara Sattler here.