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So Long, Reference Man!
Erica Barnett, 21 Nov 07
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Meet Reference Man. He was born in 1974, but he remains perpetually between 20 and 30 years old. He stands 5 feet seven inches (170 cm), weighs 154 pounds (70 kilograms) and is a Caucasian from Western Europe or North America. And for the better part of four decades, he has been the standard for US regulatory agencies in determining safe levels of exposure to radiation (specifically, ionizing radiation), which is known to cause cancer and is present in smoke detectors, dental crowns, and X-ray machines like the ones used to produce mammograms. Reference Man is the gold standard for federal rules and regulations, such as how much radiation will be allowed in contaminated soil.

If you're a woman or a child, as far as US standards for radiation exposure are concerned you simply don't exist. The US uses its stocky white man as the "average" for all Americans, even though women and children are far more vulnerable to the cancer-causing effects of radiation. Women, for example, are 52 percent more likely than men to develop cancer following exposure to radiation, according to the National Research Council. A female infant drinking milk contaminated with radioactive iodine is 100 times more likely to get thyroid cancer than an adult male. Prenatal exposure to radiation, meanwhile, can increase the likelihood of certain types of cancer, including breast cancer, later in life.

Finding a better model is obviously crucial to protecting women and children, as well as non-white people of all ages and sexes, from the harmful effects of radiation and other environmental contaminants. And if the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research and other advocates for change get their way, US standards may soon shift to include women (including pregnant women) and children. The change would mean lowering acceptable workforce exposure from five rems (a quantity of radiation) to two -- still much higher than the 100 millirem standard that doctors consider safe for fetuses.

The IEER's "Healthy From the Start" campaign to retire Reference Man is still in its nascent stages. but it has already produced an impressive report called "Science for the Vulnerable: Setting Radiation and Multiple Exposure Environmental Health Standards to Protect Those Most at Risk." It's the first of three reports that will examine the need for widening the horizon of health effects to be considered in radiation protection, integrating vulnerable populations into discussions about radiation protection, and creating a research framework that will allow for assessment of combined radiation and chemical exposures.

The campaign already includes a number of influential environmental and public health organizations, such as the American Public Health Association; Women's Action for New Directions; and Making Our Milk Safe, or MOMS. Together, these organizations and others are circulating a petition to President Bush asking him to change the standard throughout the federal government. Convincing Bush and Congress to broaden standards for radiation exposure will be a difficult challenge, but the alternative is allowing women and children to continue being exposed to dangerous levels of radiation. That seems morally insupportable.

Image: flickr/Thom Watson

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