Meet Your Government-Issued Health Standard: Reference Man

By Christine Cupaiuolo — November 15, 2007

You’d think Reference Man would be a handy know-it-all. But unfortunately RM is stuck in the 70s. And if you’re a woman, don’t look to him for medical advice.

A story at Women’s eNews explains that in determining the safe levels of ionizing radiation exposure — the kind of radiation put out by mammograms and smoke detectors — the EPA relies on the statistical model of a male who “dates to 1974, but he’s perpetually aged between 20 and 30 years old. He weighs 170 pounds, stands 5 feet 7 inches and hails from Western Europe or North America.”

Julie R. Enszer writes that the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER), along with other environmental and health organizations, are advocating that women and children — who are more vulnerable to the effects of radiation and have a higher risk of developing cancer from exposure — should take the place of “reference man.”

“We believe the government has an obligation to protect more than just adult white men from the hazards of radiation,” said Lisa Ledwidge, IEER outreach director. “Until these standards are changed, the government is not fulfilling its responsibility.”

Ledwidge says the immediate focus is getting the EPA, the chief agency in charge of regulating radiation standards, to lower current limits.

But the coalition of groups and individuals behind the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research-led “Healthy From the Start” campaign want reform throughout the government.

Ledwidge says the Department of Energy, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration all use standards based on the “reference man” or some similar model.

Campaigners want the EPA to change the reference man to a “hypothetical maximum exposed individual,” based on a model that better represents those most vulnerable to ionizing radiation, such as a pregnant woman or girl.

This would mean lowering workplace exposure levels to 2 rems per year from 5 rems. But a much smaller exposure — 100 millirems — is considered the safe threshold for fetuses, which is why pregnant women are generally advised to avoid X-rays, including dental scans.

The website for the IEER-led Campaign to Include Women, Children, and Future Generations in Environmental Health Standards features a report (PDF) on radiation and radiation risk (including a section on women, pregnancy and the workplace), additional background information and statements from participating groups. Here’s the official definition (PDF) of “reference man.”

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