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1950s: Baby Teeth Collected for Nuclear Research

(Photo: St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

When humans began detonating nuclear weapons in the 1940s, they unleashed substances that had never before existed. What impacts would they have on public health? There were plenty of guesses, but no one knew for sure.

One way to learn more would be to examine the baby teeth of children. Atomic testing resumed in the United States in 1951. Children normally shed their incisors at the age of 7. So if scientists studied baby teeth dropped in 1958, they might be able to trace the presence of radioactive substances. Thus began the St. Louis Baby Tooth Survey--a scientific study of radiation in baby teeth in the area of St. Louis, Missouri. Caroline Jack and Stephanie Steinhardt write for The Appendix:

Near-term prenatal incisor teeth (in other words, children’s front baby teeth or “milk teeth”) took up high levels of radioisotopes during their formation, yet renewed their cells at a far slower rate than bone. Therefore, baby teeth could provide a stable snapshot of radiation absorbed by human bodies in a given geographic area around the time of a child’s birth. Since children tend to shed incisor teeth around the age of seven, teeth being shed in 1958 would reflect the levels of environmental radiation absorbed by unborn children around 1951.

(Photo: University of Washington at St. Louis)

The Greater St. Louis Citizens’ Committee for Nuclear Information (CNI), a local organization of scientists and laypeople, executed the project. They conducted a massive publicity campaign that led to the collection of over 250,000 baby teeth from children in the St. Louis area. CNI organized and cataloged the teeth, then sent them to a laboratory for analysis. The result was a thoughtful study on the health impacts of nuclear testing.

(Photo: State Historical Society of Missouri)

The project encouraged children to donate their teeth for science. Local dentists advocated for the project to children and their parents. Children who contributed received a free button that they could wear as a badge. The response of area children was generous. They often mailed in their teeth addressed to the Tooth Fairy and with accompanying letters addressed "Dear Scientist" or "Dear Science." Some more profit-minded children, such as the one who wrote the letter above, tried to bill CNI for their teeth.


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