It’s Time to Retire Reference Man

Our species split atoms on purpose in 1942. Since then, few have looked back.

Weapons of Mass Destruction, energy that was supposed to be too cheap to meter which has produced more than 100,000 metric tons of waste with the potential to poison all the waters on the Blue Planet Earth, and may, in the end cost more than the electricity it made. We did all that before anyone noticed that radiation is more harmful to women, compared to men, and way more harmful to little girls than boys, and compared to men there is a whole order of magnitude greater harm to girls than to the men that regulators chose as the baseline for all regulations and risk-assessments.

Now analysts have noticed that gender, or more specifically, biological sex is a factor in harm from radiation. This discovery was made when examining the data-set used by the world to establish radiation standards—the Life Span Study data from people who survived the US nuclear attacks on Japan in 1945.

It is unconscionable that the first nuclear weapons were used, on cities full of people. And the fact that happened, and the aggressors decided to study the radiation impact, resulted in the creation of a data-set of more than 100,000 people, that includes people of both sexes and who were all ages (birth to 80) at the time of the bomb.

I sometimes say, in the atomic ashes of Hiroshima and of Nagasaki was hidden a very important message for us all…that a mistake was made: someone thought that only military males would be exposed to fission products. No one ever stopped to evaluate that assumption when hundreds of nuclear power reactors, nuclear fuel factories, nuclear weapons factories, uranium processing factories and hundreds of thousands of uranium mines were opened, and the standards made for the adult man were extended to the general population.

The mistake was not only that regulations based on men were used for the entire human lifecycle—it is that the very decisions to make nuclear weapons and generate nuclear electricity were made without the decision-makers understanding that the risk-assessments are off by a factor of ten, or more.


So, we looked at the data from Hiroshima and Nagasaki and we found a pattern that has been ignored:

  • Boys exposed in childhood cancers over lifetime

  • Girls exposed in childhood 2x more cancers over lifetime than boys

  • Men exposed in young adulthood à cancer / fatal cancer

  • Women exposed in young adulthood à 1.5x more fatal cancer than men

  • AND when women who were exposed as girls are compared to men: 10 times more cancers over their lifetime

Regulators say that girls are a “sub-population” – but that is a false construct that comes from not being trained in life-science. Girls are a part of the human lifecycle!

But all of the regulations governing nuclear operations, medical and dental exposures, assumptions about high-altitude air travel and levels of radon in homes are based on the “Reference Man.” How do we change that?

Today, there are three papers, and several presentations that tell this story about gender and radiation.

That is not enough. In order to change medical practices, policy recommendations and decisions, the first thing that is needed is a body of published literature telling the story. In order for top researchers working on radiation today to add questions on gender and radiation, they need additional capacity. Funding for post-docs and graduate and medical students will enable them to tackle these new questions.

Gender and Radiation Impact Project is dedicated to functioning as a catalyst, or a fairy god-mother, to fund initial study of why and how biological sex and life-cycle stage impact outcome of radiation exposure.

We believe that by providing a spark, the fire will build, and that mainstream funders will see the merit in this work, and that the work will grow to provide a solid basis for a policy review.

In addition, we will be raising a much-needed new generation of experts.

I hope you are as ready as I am.

Mary Olson