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The products you use to clean your bathroom might be good
for killing germs, but bad for your respiratory system. The flame
retardants in your sofa may be helpful in a fire, but harmful in
your body. And your air freshener? Its artificial fragrance may
exacerbate asthma and allergies.
“There’s a lot of information coming out all the time, more
awareness of how these things are affecting our health,” said
Kathleen Lawler, Ed.D., associate professor of Nursing. Lawler
is on the Pennsylvania State Nurses Association’s Environmental
Health Committee, and she wrote an article last spring for the
committee’s newsletter about indoor air quality and health.
We don’t yet know enough about the myriad plastics, pes-
ticides, household cleaners, and other materials that are on the
market right now, said Lawler. Most of them aren’t tested for
safety until after they’re already in use. Some of them, such as
PCBs, don’t break down easily and can contaminate homes for
long periods of time.
Toxic substances can also contaminate our water supply,
Lawler said. Lawn chemicals don’t just disappear after they are
applied to the grass; they inevitably make their way into streams
Before using certain products, Lawler wants consumers to ask
themselves, “Is this really worth it?” There are safer alternatives for
almost all conventional products, she points out. Her article sug-
gests using citrus peel or cinnamon to scent a room, cleaning with
baking soda and other natural products, and opening the windows
to let in some fresh air.
“It wouldn’t really change our quality of life to make some of
these choices,” she said. Such choices can go a long way toward
reducing our exposure to potentially harmful chemicals, and mak-
ing our environment—both indoor and outdoor—healthier.
Lawler wants to “make sure that we have future nurses who
are prepared to talk to patients about these kinds of issues.” As a
maternal and child health specialist, Lawler is especially con-
cerned about pregnant women and children and their vulnerabil-
ity to toxins. Research is coming out that questions the safety of
compounds found in many children’s toys.
In uncertain situations such as this, Lawler says, the American
Nurses Association advises using “the precautionary principle”—
in other words, err on the side of caution. Until research confirms
that a product is safe to use, she encourages nurses as well as their
patients to avoid exposure to it.
Lawler trains her R.N. to B.S.N. students on how to do envi-
ronmental health assessments, asking patients about what kind of
foods they eat and what products they use in their homes. “Even
just to ask those questions, I think, raises the awareness of how all
those factors impact people’s health,” she said.
In the spring, Lawler will teach an entire class on environ-
mental health, covering not just environmental assessments, but
toxicology, chemical exposures, waste management, environmen-
tal health policy, and the importance of good air, water, and food
quality. She looks forward to helping nurses get the word out
about how the environment influences our health, and how we can
make better consumer choices to keep ourselves safe and healthy.
KATHLEEN LAWLER, ED.D.
Lawler (right) with Nancy Husson, assistant director of IU’s clinical laboratory