OneWorld US  [Printer-friendly version]
October 21, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: Many of the assumptions underpinning U.S.
radiation safety standards are dangerously false, a new report says.]

By Abid Aslam

WASHINGTON -- The United States, in a twist on social Darwinism,
maintains protection standards so low that they shield only the
strongest people from cancer-causing radiation. So say scientists
whose conclusions are propelling a new campaign to provide greater
safety for women, children, and others at greatest risk.

"A central principle of environmental health protection--protecting
those most at risk--is missing from much of the U.S. regulatory
framework for radiation," said Arjun Makhijani, president of the
Takoma Park, Maryland-based Institute for Energy and Environmental
Research (IEER) and co-author of a new study, released Thursday,
that is driving the campaign.

Many federal radiation protection standards, such as limits on how
much residual radiation is allowed in contaminated soil, are designed
to protect "Reference Man," a hypothetical Caucasian male, says the
report, Science for the Vulnerable: Setting Radiation and Multiple
Exposure Environmental Health Standards to Protect Those Most at Risk.

Not just any white man, the notional beneficiary of existing safety
standards is 20-30 years old, weighs 154 pounds, stands five feet and
seven inches tall, and is Western European or North American in
habitat and custom.

The trouble, according to campaigners for increased protection, is
that women, children, and others often are more sensitive to the
harmful effects of radiation or toxic materials.

"I've never known a woman to give birth to a full-grown, 154-pound
'Reference Man'," said Mary Brune, co-founder of Alameda, California-
based MOMS, Making Our Milk Safe.

The 105-page IEER report sets out to discuss the higher risks to women
and girls of certain kinds of cancer, notably thyroid cancer. It finds
that a female infant drinking contaminated milk is 100 times more at
risk of thyroid cancer than an adult male. For the same dose of
radiation, women have a 52 percent greater chance of getting cancer
than do men.

"A considerable and growing body of evidence indicates that exposure
to radiation and synthetic chemicals is contributing to increasing
rates of breast cancer in the U.S. and other industrialized
countries," said Jeanne Rizzo, a registered nurse and executive
director of the San Francisco-based Breast Cancer Fund.

"If we change our safety standards to specifically protect women and
girls, we will spend less time, money and heartache treating diseases
caused by environmental exposures," Rizzo added.

There also is some evidence that the children of fathers exposed to
radiation around the time they conceived their offspring face an
increased risk of leukemia, a type of cancer that starts in blood-
forming tissue such as the bone marrow and causes large numbers of
blood cells to be produced and enter the bloodstream, scientists say.

The report cautions against conclusions about the number of Americans
who might have been affected by this or other radiation risks,
however, and notes that the specialized research needed to arrive at
such conclusions is scant and difficult to conduct.

Cancer is not the only specter causing worry among campaigners. The
report cites research findings that radioactive tritium--already found
in water used for drinking, irrigation, and recreation--crosses the
placenta, affects the developing fetus, and can cause early failed
pregnancies as well as birth defects.

"These health risks are not part of regulatory considerations
currently despite the fact that tritium discharges are occurring from
both nuclear power plants and some nuclear weapons facilities, such as
the Savannah River Site" in South Carolina, Makhijani and his
colleagues said in a statement.

Likewise overlooked in official standards is the interaction of
radioactive and chemical pollution, which combine to multiply people's
risk of disease, the scientists said.

On Thursday, they joined a coalition of local and national health,
environmental, and women's organizations; academics specialized in
terrorism, medicine, and public health; and politicians in demanding
that President George W. Bush order federal agencies to review their
radiation exposure standards. Agencies at issue include the U.S.
Department of Energy, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the
Environmental Protection Agency, and the Food and Drug Administration.
Officials there could not be reached for immediate comment.

Existing standards fly in the face of presidential orders issued by
Bill Clinton in 1997 and seconded by Bush, campaigners said in an open
letter to the chief executive.

"The use of Reference Man is not in accord with Presidential Executive
Order 13045 on the Protection of Children From Environmental Health
Risks and Safety Risks, which you endorsed with amendments in 2003,"
they wrote to Bush. The directive instructs federal agencies to
address children's disproportionate vulnerability to environmental
hazards, they added.

Solutions appear already to be in hand, according to IEER, which
provides scientific consulting services to official and private

Useful concepts such as the "maximally exposed individual" and the
"critical group" already exist and could help protect the most
sensitive but have not been widely applied, the report says.

Besides abandoning Reference Man and replacing him with the most
vulnerable population subgroup, it recommends ratcheting up workplace
radiation protection and notes that the U.S. standard for allowable
exposure is "five times more lax than that in Germany."

Unlike Europe, it adds, the United States lacks and must adopt extra
protection measures against bodily contamination for women who
breastfeed and who work at radiation-controlled job sites.

Likewise, it urges regulators to restrict the discharge of tritium so
that every liter of surface water in areas surrounding nuclear power
plants and nuclear weapons sites contains no more than 500 picocuries
of tritium. Colorado already has adopted this standard for the
environs of the now-defunct Rocky Flats nuclear plant near Denver and
the U.S. Department of Energy agreed to this limit as a site-specific
standard in the cleanup of Rocky Flats, the report says.

"The present national drinking water maximum contaminant limit for
tritium is 20,000 picocuries per liter," the report says, adding that
drinking water standards have failed to take into account the non-
cancer health risks of exposure to tritium.