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Mother’s Day Reflection – Women and Exposure to Radiation

Have you met “Reference Man?” Single white male, twenty-something, five-foot-seven, 154 pounds. Personal ad? Hot blind date? New MTV reality show?
    None of the above. Reference Man is the hypothetical individual that the government and industry uses to determine how much radiation the public can be “safely” exposed to. This means that regulations to limit radiation in drinking water, workplaces, and soil at polluted sites are designed only for adult men. The problem is obvious: people other than men are more sensitive to radiation. Women are 52 percent more likely to get cancer from the same amount of radiation. Children are at even greater risk than adults. Pregnant women and the developing fetus are particularly vulnerable to radiation exposure.
    New Mexicans, like everyone else, get exposed to radiation from natural sources like cosmic rays, radon in our basements and medical procedures.
Some radiation also lingers from the days of above ground nuclear weapons testing.
    But many of us are also getting a dose of radiation from over 18 million cubic feet of radioactive, toxic and hazardous waste buried in mesa tops and shallow sediments along the canyon bottoms at Los Alamos National Laboratory and billions of gallons of contaminated water discharged above the regional aquifer at Sandia National Laboratory from hundreds of waste sites.
    Despite the routine releases and accidental leaks, no community water systems report violations of the federal safe drinking water limit of 20,000 picocuries of tritium per liter. But is this limit protecting anyone but Reference Man?
    Tritium, like all radionuclide’s, is classified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a known human carcinogen. But tritium’s nastiness goes beyond cancer. In pregnant women, it can cross the placenta and irradiate the developing fetus, raising the risks of birth defects and early failed pregnancy.
    The tritium limit is not officially based on Reference Man, but it fails in other ways. The federal tritium drinking water limit was designed to limit the chances that people would die of cancer from exposure to it. But the risks of early failed pregnancies, of birth defects, of other noncancer effects, and of combined effects of tritium plus toxic chemicals are not part of the tritium standard-setting process.
    Even when considering cancer risk, the tritium limit is far less protective than other prevailing environmental health standards. For instance, if the tritium maximum concentration limit were based on the Superfund risk criteria for cleanup activities, it would be 400 picocuries per liter‹ 50 times more stringent than the current drinking water standard.
    It makes sense to limit tritium exposure as much as possible because the risk of cancer from radiation increases proportionally for each and every increment of exposure. A movement is afoot to change this sorry state of affairs. The “Healthy from the Start” campaign, which includes groups such as the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, Physicians for Social Responsibility, MOMS (Making Our Milk Safe) and Faithful Security, wants to shift the basis of radiation standards from Reference Man to those most at risk, whether they are children, future generations, or dear old mom.
    Here in New Mexico, a diverse alliance of community organizations known as Communities for Clean Water are hard at work to ensure that LANL complies with the Clean Water Act and protects communities from toxic emissions.
Meanwhile, Citizen Action is working to address the contamination issues at Sandia.
    It’s vital that the radionuclide’s generated by nuclear weapons activities be part of the three-year review of New Mexico’s water quality standards. This Mother’s Day and in the following weeks, call on your elected officials to protect the women of New Mexico‹ along with future generations‹ by throwing out the Reference Man standard, strengthening tritium limits for our drinking water and developing regulations that will ensure the protection of mothers, pregnant women and children in New Mexico.

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