Baby Tooth Survey

tooth projectDuring the Cold War era of the 1950s, the Greater St. Louis Citizens’ Committee for Nuclear Information studied the effect of nuclear fallout on the human anatomy by examining the levels of radioactive material absorbed into children’s teeth. Looking for radioactive isotope created by the more than 400 atomic tests conducted above ground found that is absorbed from water and dairy products into the bones and teeth given its chemical similarity to calcium.

Beginning in December 1958 scientists began gathering 50,000 baby teeth (the easiest to get rather than bone samples) mostly for children born from 1945 to 1965 each year from the St. Louis, Missouri area. The U.S. Public Health Service had been monitoring radioactive elements in air, water, and milk samples in nine different cities since 1956. St. Louis topped the list for having the highest levels of strontium-90 in milk, tainted by dairy cows grazing on grass covered in radioactive material.

To spread the word about the collection, tooth collection forms were sent to all St. Louis City and County schools, private and parochial schools, libraries and even drugstores throughout the area. Assistance came from church and social organizations and Boy Scout, Girl Scout, YMCA and YWCA groups. When a child’s tooth fell out the family submitted it to the study and donor cards with the child’s information were recorded. Similar studies were done in New York, the five Gulf Coast states, Canada, and Germany. Early findings showed that there were higher than normal levels of Strontium 90, which is a cancer causing radioactive isotope. Also found was an alarming rise in the percentage of underweight live births and of childhood cancer. As a result President John F. Kennedy pushed for the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty becoming effective on August 5, 1963 which ended above ground testing. Ultimately, the project collected over 320,000 teeth from children of various ages before the project ended in 1970.

tooth project pin Now decades later the Radiation and Public Health Project has followed up on those who donated baby teeth to check about the long term effect of low levels of radiation exposure. Their studies are still continuing.

Did you or other relatives ever donate baby teeth to ‘science’? This would be a most interesting topic to investigate, especially if relatives lived in and around St. Louis, Missouri in the late 1950s through the 1960s.
Photo: Pin for donating a tooth and tooth project poster.

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