By Linda Pentz Gunter
In a peer reviewed article published in the British Medical Journal Pediatrics Open in October, my Beyond Nuclear colleague, Cindy Folkers and I, reviewed the studies currently available that look at the impact on children from radiation exposures caused by the nuclear power sector.
In particular, we looked at the disproportionately negative impact on children living in disadvantaged communities, primarily those of color. As we wrote in the article:
“From uranium mining and milling, to fuel manufacture, electricity generation and radioactive waste management, children in frontline and Indigenous communities can be disproportionately harmed due to often increased sensitivity of developing systems to toxic exposures, the lack of resources and racial and class discrimination.”
At about the same time, and as if to confirm our hypothesis, the story of the Jana elementary school in Missouri began to break.
The school is in a predominantly Black community in northern St. Louis and the US army corps of engineers had been called in to assess radioactivity found in classrooms, playgrounds and on sports fields at the school after findings of unacceptable levels of radioactivity on the premises were revealed in an independent report conducted by Dr. Marco Kaltofen, President of Boston Chemical Data Corporation.
The radioactive contamination found at the school was, as the report described it, “consistent with the radioactive legacy uranium processing wastes notoriously found in the heavily contaminated Coldwater Creek in North St. Louis County, MO, and in low-lying areas subject to flooding from the creek.”
The report concluded that “radiological contamination exists at unacceptable levels (greater than 5.0 net pCi/g as alpha radiation) at the Jana School property.”
Why had it taken so long to discover this immense and unacceptable risk to children?
Jana’s PTA president, Ashley Bernaugh, believes she knows the answer.
“Jana elementary’s radioactive past looks like a lot of other communities where hazardous waste has been allowed to exist in predominantly minority communities and in lower middle income communities, where it never would have been allowed in upper income level communities because of the public outrage,” she told The Guardian.
By November 9 the corps had declared that radiation levels at the school “showed no levels of radiation higher than ‘the level of radioactivity Mother Nature already provides.’”
“Mother Nature” is a euphemistic reference to “background radiation,” already problematic given the decades of atomic testing and major nuclear accidents that have added to what “background” radiation levels once were but are no longer. Of far greater concern is that these levels, while likely not even safe for adults, are certainly not safe for children.
This determination of what is “safe” is based on a standard that is not only outdated but was wrong from the start. Here is what we wrote about this in our BMJ article.
“Pregnancy, children and women are underprotected by current regulatory standards that are based on ‘allowable’ or ‘permissible’ doses for a ‘Reference Man’. Early in the nuclear weapons era, a ‘permissible dose’ was more aptly recognized as an ‘acceptable injury limit,’ but that language has since been sanitized.”
Reference Man is defined as a nuclear industry worker 20–30 years of age, who weighs around 154 pounds, is 67 inches tall and is a Caucasian Western European or North American in habitat and custom.
“Very early research conducted in the USA in 1945 and 1946 indicated higher susceptibility of pregnancy to radiation exposure. Pregnant dogs injected with radiostrontium had defects in their offspring and yet, complete results of these studies were not made public until 1969,” we wrote.
“By 1960 however, U.S. experts were clearly aware that research indicated higher susceptibility of children, when the Federal Radiation Council (established in 1959 by President Eisenhower) briefly considered a definition for ‘Standard Child’—which they subsequently abandoned in favor of maintaining a Standard Man definition, later renamed Reference Man.”
Reference Man still stands, although our organization, in partnership with the Gender + Radiation Impact Project, are working to get it changed to Reference Girl. (If you are interested in learning more about this, you can join our online classes.)
Even perhaps the most famous study, in Germany, of children living near nuclear plants showing elevated rates of leukemia directly correlated to the proximity of their homes to the nuclear sites, was dismissed with claims that the doses were simply too low to have such an impact.
As we concluded in our BMJ article, which is fully accessible and can be read in its entirety here, “more independent studies are needed focused on children, especially those in vulnerable frontline and Indigenous communities. In conducting such studies, greater consideration must be applied to culturally significant traditions and habits in these communities.”