Baby Tooth Survey
The Baby Tooth Survey was initiated by the Greater St. Louis Citizens' Committee for Nuclear Information in conjunction with Saint Louis University and the Washington University School of Dental Medicine as a means of determining the effects of nuclear fallout in the human anatomy by examining the levels of radioactive material absorbed into the deciduous teeth of children.
Founded by the husband and wife team of physicians Eric and Louise Reiss, along with other scientists such as Barry Commoner and Ursula Franklin, the research focused on detecting the presence of strontium-90, a cancer-causing radioactive isotope created by the more than 400 atomic tests conducted above ground that is absorbed from water and dairy products into the bones and teeth given its chemical similarity to calcium. The team sent collection forms to schools in the St. Louis, Missouri area, hoping to gather 50,000 teeth each year. Ultimately, the project collected over 300,000 teeth from children of various ages before the project was ended in 1970.
Preliminary results published by the team in the November 24, 1961, edition of the journal Science showed that levels of strontium 90 in children had risen steadily in children born in the 1950s, with those born later showing the most increased levels. The results of a more comprehensive study of the elements found in the teeth collected showed that children born after 1963 had levels of strontium 90 in their baby teeth that was 50 times higher than that found in children born before the advent of large-scale atomic testing. The findings helped convince U.S. President John F. Kennedy to sign the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty with the United Kingdom and Soviet Union, which ended the above-ground nuclear weapons testing that placed the greatest amounts of nuclear fallout into the atmosphere.
A set of 85,000 teeth that had been uncovered in storage in 2001 by Washington University were given to the Radiation and Public Health Project. By tracking 3,000 individuals who had participated in the tooth-collection project, the RHPR published results in a 2010 issue of the International Journal of Health Service that showed that the 12 children who later died of cancer before the age of 50 had levels of strontium 90 in their stored baby teeth that was twice the level of those who were still alive at 50.
The Baby Tooth Survey inspired a number of similar initiatives in other parts of the world. For example, what became known as the Tooth Fairy Project was developed in South Africa by Dr. Anthony Turton and his team at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in order to determine whether human health impacts arising from radioactivity and heavy metal pollution downstream from gold mining activities, driven by acid mine drainage, was occurring.
A number of related studies by the Radiation Public Health Project assert that levels of radioactive strontium-90 (Sr-90) are rising in the environment and that these increased levels are responsible for increases in cancers, particularly cancers in children, and infant mortality. The group also made the claim that radioactive effluents from nuclear power plants are directly responsible for the increases in Sr-90. In one study, researchers reported that Sr-90 concentrations in baby teeth are higher in areas around nuclear power plants than in other areas. This has also sometimes been referred to as “The Tooth Fairy Project.” However, numerous peer-reviewed, scientific studies do not substantiate such claims.
- Staff. "Teeth to Measure Fall-Out", The New York Times, March 18, 1969. Accessed January 10, 2011.
- Sullivan, Walter. "BABIES SURVEYED FOR STRONTIUM 90; Ratio to Calcium in Bones Is Discovered to Be Low A survey has shown that pregnant mothers and their unborn children absorb radioactive strontium, as a substitute for calcium, only about 10 per cent of the time", The New York Times, November 25, 1961. Accessed January 10, 2011.
- Hevesi, Dennis. "Dr. Louise Reiss, Who Helped Ban Atomic Testing, Dies at 90", The New York Times, January 10, 2011. Accessed January 10, 2011.
- Wald, Matthew L. "Study of Baby Teeth Sees Radiation Effects", The New York Times, December 13, 2010. Accessed January 10, 2011.
- Tooth fairy project may reveal effect of uranium - Environment South Africa. Environment.co.za (2010-05-22). Retrieved on 2011-01-12.
- South Africa Water Crisis - Poisoning the Masses. Southafricawatercrisis.blogspot.com (2008-11-22). Retrieved on 2011-01-12.
- http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/fact-sheets/tooth-fairy.html Backgrounder on Radiation Protection and the “Tooth Fairy” Issue