Coalition Report

by Kathleen Logan Smith
Director of Environmental Policy
Coalition For The Environment

Alpha Beta Gamma: Deadly Discrimination Against Females

Apha, beta, and gamma may be the scariest Greek letters on the planet for mothers and daughters.

Alpha, beta, and gamma are types of ionizing radiation released by radioactive materials. When the unstable atoms in radioactive materials fling electrons off, scientists call the emission ionizing radiation. Radiation affects the very genetic instructions our cells use to replicate. This DNA damage can accumulate over time, which can induce cancer, birth defects and other health problems. Organisms which are experiencing rapid cell replication, like fetuses, infants, and young children, are at particular risk of radiation damage.

As the health effects of ionizing radiation exposure have been researched, it has become clear that every radiation exposure increases risk of health problems.

Women and children are especially vulnerable, which is a shame because all of the exposure guidelines since the 1950’s have been drafted to protect males. Standards organizations like the International Commission for Radiological Protection (ICRP) and the National Committee for Radiological Protection have standards that determine an ‘acceptable risk’ of a hypothetical radiation exposure to an adult, Caucasian male aged 18-35, known as ‘Reference Man’. These committees of physicists determine what are “acceptable” rates of cancer or cancer fatalities. Most of the standards used in law and policy today are based on exposure to ‘Reference Man,’ not to women and children.

Many Americans never have nor ever will benefit from protective radiation exposure standards under the current framework because we are not yet, are no longer, or never have been, nor will we ever be an adult, Caucasian male aged 18-35.

The Nuclear Information Resource Service (NIRS.org) calls radiation a “privileged pollutant” because regulators have always tried to find ways to permit exposures and not prevent them. You know well the radiation from x-rays. X-rays produce gamma radiation and heavy lead-filled blankets help protect people from unnecessary gamma ray exposures in health care settings. Gamma radiation is deemed dangerous enough that pregnant women are advised to avoid x-rays. However, some of the most dangerous radiation exposures are internal, where our bodies do not have protections. Here’s where Alpha and Beta radiation do their dirty work.

Alpha and Beta radiation can enter our bodies from contaminated air, water, and food where it has direct access to our cells. Some public health officials are fond of saying that a piece of paper will stop an Alpha ray, however they are less eager to point out that we do not have internal organs wrapped in paper. At the cellular level, Alpha and Beta radiation is explosive. In our bodies, internalized radiation may concentrate in vulnerable tissues like bone marrow (where it can induce leukemia), or in gonads (where it may play a role in reproductive harms or cancer.)

In recent years, data confirms what many have suspected: radiation hurts women more than men. This makes our male-centered exposure standards irrelevant to protecting the health of the females in our lives. For them, radiation means more cancers and more cancer deaths. Young females — our daughters, tomorrow’s mothers—face higher, deadlier risks.

For mothers and daughters in St. Louis where radioactively contaminated sites are real and not theoretical, the increased cancer risk, increased fatal cancer risks, and reproductive implications demand that we are unified, organized, and relentless in our efforts to protect ourselves and our families. Because St. Louis played a pivotal role in the development of atomic weapons as Mallinckrodt Chemical Works pioneered Uranium enrichment during the years of the secret Manhattan project, our region hosts a legacy of radioactive contamination that haunts us still. Contaminated sites downtown, at the airport, on Latty Ave., and along Coldwater Creek are being addressed. Neighborhoods around the West Lake Landfill are still seeking a solution to the nuclear weapons wastes at that Superfund site. Over 1 million cubic yards of radioactive wastes have been removed from St. Louis City and County and sent to a federally sanctioned repository. In St. Charles County more than 1.5 million cubic yards of radioactive wastes were entombed at Weldon Springs. In Jefferson County, the Westinghouse facility near Hematite is the radioactive Superfund site.

This Mother’s Day, join the Missouri Coalition for the Environment (www.moenviron.org) and help us secure protective health radiation standards that safeguard our mothers, daughters and our sons. We need your support to give voice to expose the structural flaws in law and policy that endanger women and girls in our community.

See the report from the National Academy of Sciences, Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation (BEIR) VII, Phase 2 report, “Health Risks from Exposure to Low Levels of Ionizing Radiation” 2006, Washington, D.C.

You’ll also find NIRS’ briefing document on this topic useful. (http://www.nirs.org/radiation/radhealth/radiationwomen.pdf).