Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Keep CounterPunch ad free. Support our annual fund drive today!

Women & Children First! (to be Harmed by Radiation)


“Woman and children first” is redefined in the nuclear age, now that science has shown that they are far more susceptible to the ravages of radiation than men and boys.

The nuclear power and weapons industry, people living near reactors, practitioners of nuclear medicine and dentistry, and the nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed Navy and Air Force all have a vested interest in radiation protection. Likewise the irradiation industry that zaps food, spices, medical instruments and merchandise with Cobaolt-60, construction firms that use X-ray machines to check welds, smoke detector manufacturers that place Americium-241 inside each unit, and nuclear waste brokers, haulers and dumpers who come in close proximity to radiation every day.

Yet the standard still used for “allowable” and “legal” radiation doses is a chauvinistic and alarmingly dangerous method of calculating risk.

The standard is called “reference man.” Created by the International Commission on Radiological Protection in 1975,  it defines humanity as a 5-foot-7-inch, 154-pound “Caucasian” male, 20-to-30 years old, who is “Western European or North American in habitat and custom.” Of course, this set represents neither the most vulnerable population nor the average person.

An authoritative report from the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER) — the influential scientific watchdog group in Takoma Park, Maryland — declares that the use of Reference Man is “scientifically inappropriate because the vast majority of people, including women and children, fall outside the definition” and “does not protect those most at risk” from radiation. As Matt Wald reported in the New York Times: “Experts agree that women face a risk about 50% higher than the Reference Man from the same amount of radioactive material, while the risk for children is several-fold higher.”


IEER President Arjun Makhijani says “Reference Man … is used in, among others, some drinking water regulations, the standard computer program guiding the cleanup of radioactively-contaminated sites and guidance and compliance documents of the EPA, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the Department of Energy.” 


What’s Wrong with the Old Risk Model? 

IEER’s main findings shatter the foundations that underlie the use of radioactive materials in science, medicine, construction, the irradiation of food and equipment, the military and the uranium fuel cycle for nuclear power production. IEER’s findings are worth outlining in some detail:

1. The use of Reference Man in radiation protection regulations and guidelines, including those designed to protect the general public, is pervasive. This is scientifically inappropriate because the vast majority of people, including women and children, fall outside the definition. In general, it does not protect those most at risk, who are often women and children.

2. Radiation protection regulations are generally given in terms of limits on radiation dose “per year,” or in terms of maximum allowable concentrations of radionuclides in the environment. The use of Reference Man in radiation dose calculations underestimates doses to children in a large number of situations — and to women in many situations. The underestimation of dose results in an underestimation of cancer risk.

3. Overall, children have a higher risk of cancer for a given radiation dose. This higher risk per unit of radiation dose compounds the problem of underestimation of dose.

4. The regulations and guidelines that rely mainly on Reference Man include the NRC’s radiation protection regulations in the workplace and for the general public (specified in 10 CFR 20, EPA Federal Guidance Reports 11 and 12, and DOE Order 5400.5). The default values in the official computer program used to estimate allowable residual radioactivity also use Reference Man. “He” is also used to assess compliance with the Clean Air Act.

5. The Maximum Contaminant Levels for transuranic radionuclides [isotopes like plutonium that are heavier than uranium] in drinking water rely on Reference Man.

6. The [most recent] report on low-level ionizing radiation of the National Academy of Sciences, known as the BEIR VII report, concluded that women are at considerably greater risk of dying from cancer from the same radiation dose — and also at greater risk of getting cancer per unit of radiation dose — compared to an adult male.

7. Fetal exposure is only taken into account in radiation-controlled workplaces in those cases where a woman declares her pregnancy. The standards in effect are obsolete by a factor of five or more.

8. The failure to estimate doses to children and cancer risks to children, when they are in excess of doses and risks received by adults, would appear to be in violation of President Bill Clinton’s 1997 Executive Order on children, which was reaffirmed by George W. Bush, with some changes, in 2003.

Take action: IEER and other involved in the campaign “Healthy from the Start” are working to end the use of Reference Man. For more info’, visit:

John LaForge works for Nukewatch, the nuclear watchdog group in Wisconsin. 

John LaForge is a Co-director of Nukewatch, a peace and environmental justice group in Wisconsin, and edits its newsletter.

More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine


October 26, 2016
John W. Whitehead
A Deep State of Mind: America’s Shadow Government and Its Silent Coup
Anthony Tarrant
On the Unbearable Lightness of Whiteness
Luke O'Brien
The Churchill Thing: Some Big Words About Trump and Some Other Chap
Mark Weisbrot
The Most Dangerous Place in the World: US Pours in Money, as Blood Flows in Honduras
Eric Draitser
Dear Liberals: Trump is Right
Chris Welzenbach
The Establishment and the Chattering Hack: a Response to Nicholas Lemann
Sabia Rigby
In the “Jungle:” Report from the Refugee Camp in Calais, France
Linn Washington Jr.
Pot Decriminalization Yields $9-million in Savings for Philadelphia
Pepe Escobar
“America has lost” in the Philippines
Pauline Murphy
Political Feminism: the Legacy of Victoria Woodhull
Lizzie Maldonado
The Burdens of World War III
David Swanson
Slavery Was Abolished
Thomas Mountain
Preventing Cultural Genocide with the Mother Tongue Policy in Eritrea
Colin Todhunter
Agrochemicals And The Cesspool Of Corruption: Dr. Mason Writes To The US EPA
October 25, 2016
David Swanson
Halloween Is Coming, Vladimir Putin Isn’t
Hiroyuki Hamada
Fear Laundering: an Elaborate Psychological Diversion and Bid for Power
Priti Gulati Cox
President Obama: Before the Empire Falls, Free Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu-Jamal
Kathy Deacon
Plus ça Change: Regime Change 1917-1920
Robin Goodman
Appetite for Destruction: America’s War Against Itself
Richard Moser
On Power, Privilege, and Passage: a Letter to My Nephew
Rev. William Alberts
The Epicenter of the Moral Universe is Our Common Humanity, Not Religion
Dan Bacher
Inspector General says Reclamation Wasted $32.2 Million on Klamath irrigators
David Mattson
A Recipe for Killing: the “Trust Us” Argument of State Grizzly Bear Managers
Derek Royden
The Tragedy in Yemen
Ralph Nader
Breaking Through Power: It’s Easier Than We Think
Norman Pollack
Centrist Fascism: Lurching Forward
Guillermo R. Gil
Cell to Cell Communication: On How to Become Governor of Puerto Rico
Mateo Pimentel
You, Me, and the Trolley Make Three
Cathy Breen
“Today Is One of the Heaviest Days of My Life”
October 24, 2016
John Steppling
The Unwoke: Sleepwalking into the Nightmare
Oscar Ortega
Clinton’s Troubling Silence on the Dakota Access Pipeline
Patrick Cockburn
Aleppo vs. Mosul: Media Biases
John Grant
Humanizing Our Militarized Border
Franklin Lamb
US-led Sanctions Targeting Syria Risk Adjudication as War Crimes
Paul Bentley
There Must Be Some Way Out of Here: the Silence of Dylan
Norman Pollack
Militarism: The Elephant in the Room
Patrick Bosold
Dakota Access Oil Pipeline: Invite CEO to Lunch, Go to Jail
Paul Craig Roberts
Was Russia’s Hesitation in Syria a Strategic Mistake?
David Swanson
Of All the Opinions I’ve Heard on Syria
Weekend Edition
October 21, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Wight
Hillary Clinton and the Brutal Murder of Gaddafi
Diana Johnstone
Hillary Clinton’s Strategic Ambition in a Nutshell
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Trump’s Naked and Hillary’s Dead
John W. Whitehead
American Psycho: Sex, Lies and Politics Add Up to a Terrifying Election Season
Stephen Cooper
Hell on Earth in Alabama: Inside Holman Prison
Patrick Cockburn
13 Years of War: Mosul’s Frightening and Uncertain Future