Karen Bowman, environmental-health nurse, answers questions
What work do you do?
I have the best job in the world! I’m president of Karen Bowman & Associates Inc., a nurse-owned firm that provides occupational- and environmental-health services to the global community.
How does it relate to the environment?
The company designs and implements cost-effective, sustainable solutions that enhance health and safety in the workplace. Companies love nurses! We are the most trusted profession — sharing that honor occasionally with firefighters — and people listen to us. When companies are in a pickle because they’ve been audited by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration or the Washington state Department of Labor’s WISHA, they call me. Nurses are great at kissing boo-boos, fixing things, and teaching clients how to improve their situations. That’s essentially what I do! It’s so fun, I can hardly stand it. What other profession lets you climb on a tanker to provide immunizations to a crew from Brazil, assess an injured worker’s knee at a construction site, instruct police officers on how to decontaminate a jail, and testify on banning persistent bioaccumulative toxins, all in a day’s work? Our services include wellness/health and safety programs, managed medical surveillance, immunizations, program development and education, compliance audits and environmental assessments, and first aid. We’re particularly interested in raising awareness of the shortfalls of occupational and environmental health in underserved populations.
My job as an occupational health nurse is to make sure workers are fully informed about the health hazards they work with — biological, chemical, physical, mechanical, and psychosocial. Because the majority of chemicals have little to no human- or environmental-health data, workers are poorly informed about the health hazards associated with the chemicals they work with. They must understand routes of exposure, how chemicals affect their bodies, and the recommended control measures to protect themselves. What’s most critical for them to understand is that they may also be exposing their families, including small children, to the same hazards if they don’t take precautionary measures such as showering, changing shoes, periodically cleaning the car, etc.
How do you get to work?
The firm is based in Seattle, right out of my home.
What are you working on at the moment?
I have a continual project of informing immigrant populations about the hazards they work with, especially chemicals. Currently I’m working with Washington Toxics Coalition and the Toxic-Free Legacy Coalition on legislation to ban brominated flame retardants. Chemicals policy reform is the next big enchilada! People are very smart; once they learn about toxic chemicals, they’ll be right on board.
We also work with the serene town of Siem Reap, Cambodia, located 15 minutes from Angkor Wat, which has been identified as a major tourist destination for 2006. This has created a plethora of occupational- and environmental-health issues because of the rapid move from “underdeveloped” to “developed” status, with little regard to the environment, community, or workers. This, in addition to the ravages of war, land mines, poor nutrition, lack of clean water, and appropriate sanitation, have created almost insurmountable odds for the continuation of a healthy Khmer community. My company works with Professional Adventures (a company I cofounded) and others from across the globe to provide a floating village hospital on the Tonle Sap with generators, medical supplies, and money for medications such as antibiotics.
In recent years, I’ve focused my attention on informing nurses, workers, and the public about environmental-health hazards such as persistent bioaccumulative toxins and their link to chronic health concerns in the U.S. and underdeveloped countries. I am currently the environmental health specialist for the Washington State Nurses Association, which provides an excellent opportunity to build capacity in nursing for environmental-health advocacy, educate the nursing profession on current environmental-health issues and their roles in prevention, and help direct policy toward a more appropriate way to deal with chemicals.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
I was born right here in Seattle in 1953. I’ve been working in occupational health for over 20 years, health care for over 30 years, and in 2004 received a master’s degree in community health with a special focus in occupational and environmental health (OEH). I’m board certified as an occupational health nurse specialist. I think one of my biggest blessings is to have been the occupational and environmental-health nurse for a leading occupational medicine clinic in the greater Seattle area, which gave me experience in many industries, not just one. I currently teach part-time at the University of Washington’s School of Nursing and am the vice president and president-elect of the Washington chapter of the Association of Occupational Health Nurses.
What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?
On the morning of a huge training presentation to a biotech firm in Seattle, I thought I was adding a copyright logo to each PowerPoint slide when in reality I deleted the whole program. Once I hit that button, there was no return. I had to spend the next eight hours recreating the presentation. It was a good but costly lesson on not doing anything before coffee.
What’s been the best?
Aside from saving lives, stamping out disease, and healing the sick, the best has been to recoup burned-out nurses and turn them into thriving, excited expert OEH nurses. I actually think everyone should become an OEH nurse. My students say so too!
What environmental offense has infuriated you the most?
OK, now you’re getting into my idiosyncrasies. I hate it when people throw cigarette butts out their car windows, and when people pour oil and other solvents down the storm drain! Excuse me — fish are trying to live here!
Who is your environmental hero?
My personal environmental heroes are my grandfather and his daughter, my mother. My grandfather taught me that everything had spirit — animals, trees, rocks, water, the sky, etc. — and my mother was the original “tree hugger.” Really! We’d walk around the woods of the Pacific Northwest and she would walk up to a tree and hug it for the longest time and talk to it. She died from an organic brain disease that melted her memory away. She worked for an aerospace company for over 30 years, bent over wire bundles and circuit boards, and, while welding, inhaled the fumes. She was my champion. Now I champion for the environment in her name and will not stop, ever! I don’t want another daughter to lose a mother this way.
My environmental organization hero is easy — the Washington Toxics Coalition. They are tireless in advocating for the environment and creating a legacy of clean water, air, soil, and food for our most priceless resource, our children. They have taught me so much.
What’s your environmental vice?
I’m embarrassed to say: my PT Cruiser. I promise, my next car will be more earth-friendly. OK, OK, my Clinique lipstick too!
How do you spend your free time (if you have any)? Read any good books lately?
Free time? What’s that? I’ve gotten into physical fitness lately, and bought myself a trainer. I like to play with my rabbits Marty and Stella, read OEH nursing books (yes, I’m a geek), and travel. I volunteer with the Cambodian Community Center.
What’s your favorite meal?
Everything short of meat and cilantro — ick!
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
Other than my home, Cambodia.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
Phase out the top 10 most persistent bioaccumulative toxins and substitute earth-friendly alternatives.
What’s your favorite TV show?
Which actor would play you in the story of your life?
I think Meryl Streep should play me. Will you contact her please?
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Call your legislator and get involved in chemicals policy reform. If you’re too shy, swap out toxic household cleaners for safer, cheaper alternatives, and tell all your friends to do the same.