St. Louis baby tooth study has lasting legacy

ST. LOUIS (AP) — Though a half-century has passed, a survey of baby teeth in St. Louis has a lasting legacy, playing a major role in ending nuclear war testing.

The study began at the height of the Cold War in the 1950s and took 12 years, involving thousands of school-age children and roughly 320,000 of their tiny teeth, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch ( ) reported. It sought to determine if radioactive fallout from atmospheric nuclear weapons testing was being absorbed by children’s bones and teeth.

The answer was an overwhelming yes. Children born in St. Louis in 1963 had 50 times as much strontium 90, a radioactive isotope found in bomb fallout and at nuclear reactors, in their teeth as children born in 1950, the study showed. Its results contributed to an international treaty to banning atmospheric nuclear weapons testing — the Partial Test Ban Treaty — which was signed by the United States on Aug. 5, 1963.

Joseph Mangano, executive director of the Radiation and Public Health Project, said the treaty is “one of the great environmental treaties in history.”

It sort of started the world on the path from inevitable nuclear war and disaster to disarmament,” he said.

By the 1950s, when the idea for the study was hatched in St. Louis, the U.S. and Soviet Union had already tested hundreds of nuclear weapons. Prevailing winds carried the radioactive debris from the U.S. tests, much of it in the deserts of the West, to places like St. Louis.

The Baby Tooth Survey proved that strontium 90 was in pastures and fields, the grass consumed by goats and cows and, eventually, milk. The chemistry of strontium 90 is similar to calcium, so it was ending up in teeth and bones.

Prominent St. Louis scientists and physicians were concerned about the effects of radioactive fallout and formed the Citizens Committee for Nuclear Information. Founding members included Eric Reiss’ parents, both physicians. His mother, Louise, was director of the study and authored an article for the journal Science in November 1961. His father, Eric, presented findings in testimony before a U.S. Senate committee.

Today, Reiss, 59, lives in Copenhagen. His parents have passed away. He remembers meetings with scientist and environmental pioneer Barry Commoner and others in the living room of his home. In 1962, he was 8 when he took a phone call from President John F. Kennedy, asking to speak to his mother.

“It didn’t really even dawn on me at that time that it was the President of the United States,” Reiss said.

Reiss said the study relied on real data, not hyperbole.

“The idea of the Baby Tooth Survey was, ‘Let’s not use emotional argument, let’s use the scientific method to prove or disprove a condition,'” he said.

Martha Ackman grew up in St. Louis County and was among the children who gave up their teeth in exchange for a round metal button featuring a gap-toothed child, the button declaring, “I gave my tooth to science.” She’s now a writer and professor of gender studies at Mount Holyoke College in western Massachusetts.

“I don’t remember anything about strontium 90, and I don’t even know if that was vaguely mentioned,” she said. “To me as a grade-schooler, my family, it seemed like, ‘Let’s help out science and find out something from our baby teeth.'”

Decades later, in her 40s, she developed thyroid disease and had a large benign tumor removed. She still wonders whether there was a connection to the radiation.

The tooth survey, which ended in 1970, was funded by the U.S. Public Health Service and Leukemia Society of Missouri and Illinois.


Information from: St. Louis Post-Dispatch,

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