03/17/2014 02:21 pm ET Updated May 17, 2014

Nurses Demand Secretary Kerry Prove No Health Harm From KXL, 'Don't Pipeline My Patients'

Registered nurses from coast to coast are stepping up the challenge to the controversial Keystone XL pipeline with a demand that Secretary of State John Kerry provide proof that Keystone will not harm the health and safety of Americans prior to any final decision on the project.

In addition, National Nurses United, the nation's largest organization of RNs, is circulating an online petition to Kerry that will be presented to the State Department demanding the guarantee, and has released a new short video from nurses titled, "Don't Pipeline My Patients."

To add your voice, sign the petition here.

NNU announced the latest campaign in a press conference on Capitol Hill Thursday hosted by U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who chairs the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.

NNU called on Kerry and the Obama administration, who are posed to make a final determination on Keystone soon, to immediately commission a comprehensive analysis on the health impact of Keystone and issue a declarative finding that it will not harm human health -- or no pipeline. Boxer and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) recently made a similar call.

Karen Higgins, NNU President (third from right) with NNU members at press conference

Noting that the State Department must determine that KXL is in the national interest, NNU Co-President Karen Higgins, RN said, "[A] project that places the health and safety of our patients, our families, and our communities at substantial risk cannot possibly be in our national interest."

Boxer opened by observing, "When you ask the American people which professionals do they trust the most, they put nurses at the top of the list."

She cited the widespread harm now seen at "each step of the toxic tar sands oil process -- from the extraction to the transport to the refining to the waste disposal... don't just take my word, or that of the peer reviewed science on this issue," Boxer said, "take the word of America's most trusted professionals -- nurses."

Sen. Barbara Boxer with National Nurses United members

Boxer emphasized the short shrift the public debate on Keystone has paid to the adverse health effects, including just "one tiny little paragraph" in the voluminous Final Environmental Impact Study released by the State Department in January. The health effects, she said later, "have been swept under the rug."

Higgins agreed with Sen. Boxer that the debate on the health hazards has been "woefully inadequate" and she cited, as the Sierra Club noted it its coverage of the event, the epidemic proportions of asthma in the U.S. as well as increased rates of cancer, leukemia, skin and eye issues, and nervous system damage as a result of tar sands production.

RNs from across the U.S., including those along the path of the proposed pipeline, spoke about the health harm already caused by tar sands.

Kansas RN Kari Columbus

"Being on the path of the pipeline, I am concerned for our health and safety that a rupture could cause. We have seen what can happen with tar sands pollution and we feel like that's an experience that we don't need," said Kansas RN Kari Columbus. "I daily see the effects of pollution on the health of patients that I take care of daily. I myself have asthma, one of my daughters has asthma, and I see many patients that deal with respiratory illnesses that could be made worse by this incoming impending project."

Brenda Prewitt, a pediatric RN in Houston, a city plagued by among the worst environmental pollution in the U.S., cited a Rice University study that shows that "levels of cancer causing chemicals produced by oil refining are already in some cases 20 times higher in Houston than in other cities, and this is before the pipeline is coming through."

"Children living within two miles of the Houston ship channel, which is where the pipeline will come in, are 56 percent more likely to get leukemia than those living 10 or more miles away," Prewitt continued.

Houston RN Brenda Prewitt

"Tar Sands oil is dirtier than refining conventional oil and results in higher emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide, which contribute to respiratory diseases like asthma, chronic bronchitis and lung cancer," said Prewitt. "According to the EPA short term exposure to elevated levels of sulfur dioxide is associated with reduced functioning of lungs, chest tightness, wheezing, shortness of breath, respiratory illness and aggravation of your cardiovascular system which means your heart."

"Tar Sands is more costly to refine, not only costly by money, but in the end will cost us the health of our children, the health of ourselves and in areas near the pipeline it will cause problems with the health of our land," noted Prewitt.

Chicago RN Rolanda Watson works in a clinic on Chicago's South Side that was evacuated in December during a toxic dust cloud blowing off a petroleum coke (petcoke) pile of waste leftover after tar sands is refined.

Chicago RN Rolanda Watson

"These plumes of petcoke," which Watson noted are toxic and laced with metals such as mercury, lead, arsenic and nickel, "are not covered and they are not contained, so you are constantly getting these clouds blowing everywhere, covering houses and picnic areas."

"Children can't play outside, they can't eat their food outside because these particulates are going to be embedded in their food, and when inhaled they are embedded in their lungs. These particulates can aggravate and can cause, asthma, bronchitis, and lung diseases and these diseases will significantly decrease your chance to fight other infections so in the long run what you will see is more hospitalization and health care costs are going to go up," Watson said.

Oakland, Ca. RN Katy Roemer noted that tar sands oil is currently being transported into refineries in Richmond, Ca., exposing 25,000 people, mostly low income and people of color, who live within three miles of the refinery to serious health risk.

Oakland RN Katy Roemer at Keystone protest in February

"In order to transport it, the tar sands oil must be diluted with very toxic chemicals such as benzene, toluene, chromium and lead," said Roemer. "The tar sands industry won't reveal the exact chemical mix used, so when it spills, it is very difficult to clean up. These chemicals pose serious risks to human health such as respiratory toxicity, cancer and nervous system damage. In addition, these chemicals are more corrosive than regular crude oil, which makes spills more likely and toxic when they do occur.

"Currently the people who live near the Richmond refinery suffer from higher rates of asthma, chronic breathing conditions and cancer. Importing and refining the heavier crude oils like the tar sands oil will lead to more particulate and sulfur emissions and other pollutants in the air, further placing these residents at even more risk," Roemer said. "We are already seeing the effects of climate change in more extreme weather patterns, drought, severe winter storms, and hurricanes that cause incredible human suffering and death. We can and must do better for the well-being of our planet and the health of all who live here."

After the press conference, Boxer then spoke about the health hazards and the NNU campaign at the formal Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Keystone. It's the nurses, she noted, who see those affected by the adverse health effects "coming into emergency rooms."

"These are the forgotten voices in this debate. I'm just one Senator, just one vote," Boxer said, "but now I have 185,000 nurses behind me."