Reference Man Standard Fails to Protect Most Vulnerable
January 9, 2009
A report released this week by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER) points out the weaknesses in the "Reference Man" standard currently used by many federal agencies to determine appropriate regulation guidelines for radiation. Reference Man is Caucasian, between 20 and 30 years of age with Western European or North American habits and customs. He is 5 feet 7 inches tall, weighing 154 pounds. This model excludes the vast majority of people. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Department of Energy use Reference Man to determine radiation regulations. Reference Man is the model for many drinking water regulations as well as emission standards for the Clean Air Act.
Arjun Makhijani, Ph.D., the author of the report and president of IEER, explained that Reference Man is not an adequate standard and is failing more vulnerable demographics. He said, "Use of Reference Man standard is pervasive in U.S. protection regulations and compliance guidelines. This is wrong because it often fails to adequately protect groups other than young white males." Women and children, when exposed to the same dose of radiation, are at greater risk for cancer and other harmful effects. For example, women are 52% more likely to get cancer from the same dose of radiation as males and a female infant is seven times more likely to get cancer.
Last May then-Senator Barack Obama and House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman Henry Waxman sent a letter to the EPA concerning revision of the Reference Man standard. The EPA answered that it "does not believe in continued use of Reference Man," but Reference Man is still being used for multiple regulatory standards. Dr. Makhijani commented that it is time for the EPA to "confine Reference Man to history."
At present, the use of Reference Man seriously inhibits progress in radiation protection for women and children. This lack of protection violates the 1997 Presidential Executive Order on Children's Health and Safety, which prioritizes specific and appropriate protection for children and was reaffirmed by the Bush administration. Dr. Makhijani noted that protection standards are not up to par, despite the EPA's defense of their methods. He said, "[EPA] said current radiation regulations are protective. We don't believe they're protective."
Cynthia Sauer is a witness to the detrimental effects of these gaps in protection. Sauer's daughter, Sarah, then seven years old, contracted brain cancer while the family was living in proximity to the Dresden and Braidwood nuclear power plants in Illinois. Sauer said that the government's methods of risk assessment were unable to say what radiation levels were safe for Sarah. Sauer is hoping for better long-term risk assessment methods. She said, "When we're told there's no risk to the public, I want risk defined and public defined."
IEER and other groups are optimistic that President-elect Obama's administration will bring about much-needed change in revising risk assessment guidelines. This would include official guidelines being published by the EPA that provide risk information for males, females, and children and infants. Change would also include lowering the maximum allowable dose of radiation from 100 millirem per year to 25 millirem per year, a standard that is more in line with European standards.
As Sauer pointed out, it is necessary for the protection of the most vulnerable members of our society that the Reference Man be abolished. "The 'public' is more than Reference Man," she said. "It must include all our little Sarahs."
For more information and to read the report, "The Use of Reference Man in Radiation Protection: Standards and Guidance with Recommendations for Change," please visit www.ieer.org