OneWorld US, 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 organizations.

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.