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Environmental Avenger, Social Reformer, Nurse

June 14th, 2007  |  Following the Leaders

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Dorothy Powell, RN, EdD, FAAN, is seeking global environmental and social justice. As director of Duke University’s Office of Global and Community Health Initiatives (OGACHI), Powell is working to reduce health disparities among the world’s most vulnerable populations, and to advance the practice of nursing.

Powell’s interest in the environmental and social justice movement started in her youth. While living in Vance County, North Carolina, Powell’s uncle and other community leaders fought an epic battle against racism and environmental discrimination in neighboring Warren County.

In the summer of 1978, Ward Transformer, a Raleigh, N.C.-based company, illegally dumped 30,000 gallons of highly toxic PCB-laced oil along 240 miles of North Carolina roadsides in 14 counties. This put citizens at risk for exposure to PCBs, which are commonly associated with acute toxicological poisoning as well as long-term physical effects such as memory loss. Left with the task of cleaning up the toxic oil and after what the state called an exhaustive search for an appropriate landfill site, then-Governor James B. Hunt Jr. announced the state had decided to dispose of the 32,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil containing PCB-laced oil in the community of Afton, a small rural town located in Warren County. The governor defended his choice by saying that Warren County was chosen solely for technical reasons. But according to William Sanjour, the chief of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) hazardous waste implementation branch, there was “no amount of science, truth, knowledge, or facts that supported the governor’s decision.” The evidence showed that the highly toxic material would sit a mere five to 10 feet above the community’s shallow water table. Dubbed “Hunt’s Dump,” critics said that Warren County was chosen because most of its 16,232 residents were black, poor, rural, and politically helpless.

Powell says her uncle, with other community activists, worked with civil rights and environmental groups to protest the landfill. For six weeks, the nation watched as hundreds of protesters gathered at the Coley Springs Baptist Church and marched to the dumpsite to demand environmental justice. Powell says, “Hundreds of people literally put their bodies across the road to prevent the trucks from hauling the dirt to the landfill. But, in spite of the national attention and the risk to body and life to stop the trucks, the toxic waste was put in the landfill anyway.” During the protest, there were 523 arrests and protesters went to jail — some as many as six times.

Powell remembers the early epic battles against environmental and social injustice, and she is continuing her work to reduce health disparities within the national and international arenas. Powell is dedicated to teaching nurses how the environment impacts health, and she is focused on teaching nurses how to recognize illnesses caused by poverty and toxins in the environment. Under Powell’s leadership, nursing students and faculty members are working with homeless families who are living in local transitional shelters in Durham, North Carolina, and nursing students are also working with the area’s poverty stricken elderly population. In addition, Powell is working with the international community to establish an annual Caribbean Institute. The institute will be held in collaboration with the Pan American Health Organization, and will focus on education of nurses regarding the care of the elderly.

Dorothy Powell has taken the hard learned lessons of the past, and she is moving forward to create positive changes for millions of people around the world She is an inspiring nursing leader.

Photograph from Inside: Duke University Medical Center and Health System Employee Newsletter.

Terri Polick
About Terri Polick
Terri Polick has been a nurse for thirty years, and is a published author living in Maryland, just outside of Washington, D.C. She is currently working as a freelance writer, and is a frequent contributor to Nursing Spectrum Magazine. Terri works at a local community hospital as a psychiatric nurse.

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