What is ionizing radiation?

The World Health Organization defines ionizing radiation as “radiation with enough energy so that during an interaction with an atom, it can remove tightly bound electrons from the orbit of an atom, causing the atom to become charged or ionized.”

Ionizing radiation can be found in many places in our modern world, including residue and waste from the nuclear industry, both electric power and weapon production, medical procedures like x-rays and CT scans, and even air travel.

What is the difference between ‘gender’ and ‘biological sex?’

Today, our society is coming to crisper distinction between the terms, 'gender' and 'biological sex,' even in the decade since these findings on radiation were made.

Biological sex refers to the physical attributes tied to the chromosomal make-up of cells: xx is biological female and xy is biological male. Gender is a far more complex issue, and today, in general it denotes a personal, social and cultural identity.

Gender and Radiation Impact Project began in rooms that were still primarily filled with males, primarily concerned with nuclear policies of the 21st Century. In fact, the development, regulation, and use of nuclear technologies has been deeply gendered, rooted primarily in medicine of the early 20th century and the Manhattan Project that developed the nuclear weapons used by the United States against Japan in WWII.

In both of these settings, males were the dominant groups protected by regulations. When the nuclear industry and medicine expanded greatly after WWII, the policy world was also primarily male, and no official stopped to ask whether regulations based solely on adult-male harm were and are appropriate for a general population that includes the entire human life cycle.

In truth, what we are talking about in terms of disproportionate impact on girls and women refers to biological sex. The founder apologizes that in order to be heard in this gendered situation, she could not begin by talking about ‘sex;’ thus the term ‘gender’ is used here somewhat “old school.”

How do small exposures over time compare to one big exposure?

According to findings from the International Nuclear Workers Study, the results are comparable. The Centers for Disease Control also examined these results and found this study “supports previous findings and strengthens the evidence of a relationship between leukemia and ionizing radiation. This relationship is observed not only at high doses following acute exposure, but also from prolonged, low exposures found in the workplace.”

And the truth is, while we don’t know why girls and women are impacted more by radiation, we do know they are. In fact, we know the harm to girls and women is, overall, roughly twice that of boys.

With as destructive as we know ionizing radiation to be, the fundamental question as to why exposure to radiation burdens girls and women at levels far higher than their male counterparts has not been addressed, nor has the urgency to find safer alternatives been established.

Gender and Radiation Impact Project is committed to better understanding how the human life-cycle and biological sex relate to these findings at all levels of exposure.

How is exposure currently regulated?

Current regulations for everyone are based on data from adult men, with bodies ten times less likely to get cancer than if little girls are exposed.

Known as “Reference Man,” he is the physiological standard by which current medical and scientific outcomes are measured against. He is described as being a 20 - 30 year Western European or North American Caucasian male, 5’ 7” tall and weighing roughly 150lbs, who lives in a climate with an average temperature between 50 - 68 degrees Fahrenheit.

Radiation regulation based on Reference Man typically results in systematic under-reporting of radiation harm for the global population. Additionally, male dose receptors are customarily used to assign acceptable levels for women, meaning radiation-caused harm as a whole may routinely be underreported.

Also, those impacted by ionizing radiation are often not informed unless the levels are catastrophic, while at the same time volumes of peer-reviewed studies confirm there is no dose of radiation small enough to be "safe." As research continues, we have a generation of children, girls especially, who need greater protection. Gender and Radiation Impact Project supports a shift to understand the human life-cycle rather than Reference Man.

What about reproductive impacts?

Without doubt, the earliest phases of the human lifecycle are the most impacted by ionizing radiation. However, there is no large data-set for population study of reproductive cells (human eggs and sperm) or developing embryo and fetus.

We know that early in gestation, radiation harm most frequently results in unviability of the offspring, seen in spontaneous abortion, or later, miscarriage. Broad population studies of radiation-impacted plants, animals and cells are ongoing, and confirm the need for deep concern.

Gender and Radiation Impact Project has chosen to invest in a new generation of researchers, leaders and policies to support further work on these concerns. Overall, the best hope for healthy reproduction is education, better choices, and prevention of unnecessary and unintended exposures.

What can I do now?

The last several decades have seen a shift in thinking around public health issues once thought impenetrable – from cigarette smoking and seat belts to sunscreen and car seats for children. Now it’s time for the public to understand and act on the striking difference related to biological sex and outcomes from exposure to ionizing radiation. 

The US Environmental Protection Agency shares general, non-gendered information on common sources of radiation to consider now, and as we search for answers, the wisdom of anthropologist Margaret Mead comes to mind: never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.

We are grateful to consider you among our thoughtful, committed core supporters who will seed the development of better protections and precautions for future generations.