It is widely known that ionizing radiation - radioactivity powerful enough to strip electrons from atoms, break chemical bonds of molecules, and even break chromosomes - can be extremely harmful to humans. Even at low levels, ionizing radiation has the potential to cause DNA damage resulting in an uncontrolled division of abnormal cells, or what is commonly known as cancer.
While this public health threat impacts us all, the risk is dramatically greater for women and girls.
For every two men who develop cancer through exposure to ionizing radiation, three women will get the disease. Further, while children as a whole are more harmed by radiation than adults, infant and young girls, when exposed, run the highest risk of cancer across their lifetime, and teenage girls will suffer almost double rates of cancer compared to boys in the same juvenile group and the same level of exposure.
The information above, derived from data contained in the 2006 National Academy of Sciences Report Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation VII, or BEIR VII, clearly shows that gender is a major factor in determining who suffers harm from exposure to ionizing radiation, yet this fact has not been widely reported and is not reflected in regulations or practice.
Yet, there is reason to hope. With the participation of 135 nations, the preamble of the 2017 UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was written to include the following stanza:
Cognizant that the catastrophic consequences of nuclear weapons cannot be adequately addressed, transcend national borders, pose grave implications for human survival, the environment, socioeconomic development, the global economy, food security and the health of current and future generations, and have a disproportionate impact on women and girls, including as a result of ionizing radiation... (emphasis added)
The fact this treaty was crafted to include language referring to impact on girls and women demonstrates we have a window to examine why this is the case, which will lead to better and healthier solutions for everyone.
It is time to ask the right questions and educate the public about the policy and lifestyle choices related to ionizing radiation.