By Susan Walton R.N.

A statistic from the World Health Organization in the David Suzuki Foundation briefing note on the Right to Live in a Healthy Environment took me by surprise. It claims, “environmental contamination, including polluted air and water, causes as many as 36,000 premature deaths annually in Canada. Preventable environmental hazards contribute up to 1.5 million days in hospital annually due to cardiovascular disease, respiratory illness, cancer, and birth defects alone.” 1

In my practice as a registered nurse in the Yukon, I am guided by our Standards of Practice and by the Canadian Nurses Association code of ethics. I see these documents much like a skeleton on which to hang the many decisions I make daily. From these documents I also know it is my duty to advocate and work for changes in society that support the fundamental determinants of health.

Also, as a nurse, I look at the environmental crisis and understand it much like a health crisis. Only a few years ago the effects of heart disease and heart attacks were more severe and went untreated for longer periods of time. Education and awareness have turned this around.

We are already too much of a disposable society living in a chemical soup, and it hurts my brain to think of truck after truck coming up the Alaska Highway with goods that are cheap and superfluous to our needs. Transportation of goods is one of the largest producers of GHGs in the Yukon.

We are like ravens whose eyes are caught by the glitter of something shiny. I see the amount of waste generated by the health “industry”. Much of the time I am overwhelmed by the amount of “stuff” we consume and waste.

In the last century or so we’ve been making some pretty poor health choices for this planet. And now, not surprisingly, it’s affecting the organism as a whole. In abusing the Earth, we’ve been abusing ourselves.

At our 2015 Yukon Registered Nurses Association conference, I introduced a resolution on the Right to a Healthy Environment, based on the Blue Dot and David Suzuki Foundation primers. YRNA and its membership can use the resolution to formally and fundamentally shift the way the organization functions. We can use it as a tool to take into consideration the daily micro decisions (including small but important ones like choosing non-filter French press coffeemakers rather than those that produce plastic waste) all the way to macro decisions. By applying full life-cycle cost accounting to our own organization we can be role models and integrate a type of decision-making that ensures we continually look at the bigger picture and continually reassess our needs.

YRNA can take a lead in the North by publicly supporting all levels of government — including federal, territorial, First Nations and municipal — in developing legislation to recognize that all people have the right to live in a healthy environment.

I put out the challenge to all nursing and medical associations in Canada to follow suit and resolve to support the Right to a Healthy Environment.

I can proudly say the YRNA resolution passed unanimously.


1. Boyd, D. R. and S. Genuis. 2008. “The Environmental Burden of Disease in Canada: Respiratory Disease, Cardiovascular Disease, Cancer, and Congenital Affliction.” Environmental Research 106: 240-49.

(Image credit: Oliver Hegenbarth via Flickr)