Report: Gender, age bias remain in radiation dose regulations

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U.S. radiation exposure regulations and compliance assessment guidelines often fail women and children, because they are based on “Reference Man,” a hypothetical 20 to 30-year-old Caucasian male, according a report released Jan. 7 by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER).

At least three federal agencies—the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and Department of Energy (DoE)—still use Reference Man in radiation dose regulations and compliance assessment, despite evidence that it fails to adequately protect many groups, according to IEER.

“The use of Reference Man standard is pervasive in U.S. radiation protection regulations and compliance guidelines,” said the report’s lead author Arjun Makhijani, PhD, president of IEER. “This is wrong because it often fails to adequately protect groups other than young, adult white males. Children, for instance, frequently get larger, and hence more dangerous, doses of radiation from the same environmental conditions. Moreover they often have a higher risk of cancer per unit of dose. In such cases, they suffer a double whammy—greater dose and greater risk per unit of dose. Reference Man needs to be replaced with a framework that better protects all members of the public.”

Makhijani said that:

  • Women are 52 percent more likely to get cancer from the same amount of radiation dose compared to men;
  • Children are at even greater risk than adults;
  • A female infant has about a seven times greater chance of getting cancer than a 30-year-old male for the same radiation exposure; and
  • Pregnant women and the developing fetus are particularly vulnerable to radiation exposure.

Yet, he noted that non-cancer reproductive effects are generally not part of the U.S. regulatory framework for radiation protection.

In May 2008, then-Senator Barack Obama and House Oversight and Government Reform
Committee Chairman Henry Waxman sent a letter to the EPA asking about the agency’s use of “Reference Man.”      

The IEER report recommends that compliance with radiation protection always be estimated by calculation doses for those most at risk and calls for a significant reduction in the maximum allowable dose to the general public from 100 millirem per year to 25 millirem per year. It also recommends a revamping of EPA’s guidance documents to reflect doses received by males and females of all ages.

“We hope that the incoming Obama administration, with its commitment to health and environmental protection, will do so with dispatch. The NRC and DoE also need to make significant changes,” Makhijani said.  

Other recommendations of the report include tightening of radiation protection for women, who declare their pregnancies, in radiation workplaces, and the development and publication of official federal guidance on in-utero dose estimation methods, including in the early stage of pregnancy.  

The IEER report provides policy guidance for the incoming Obama Administration and Congress, which the organization said is currently being considered by the Transition Team along with House leaders.