Researchers Gathered Radioactive Teeth From Infants During The Cold War

By: Olawale Ogunjimi | Published: Oct 16, 2023

Toward the end of World War II, the United States dropped atomic bombs on two Japanese cities—Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These are the only two incidents of nuclear weapon use in armed conflict to date. Although some people justify its use as necessary for ending the war, others raised concerns about the unknown health implications.

Among the second group are a team of scientists who came together to determine how the nuclear fallout affected humans using—wait for it—children’s baby teeth.

The Atomic Bomb Fallout After the Fallout

Contrary to expectations, the conclusion of the Second World War didn’t end nuclear weapon testing. Seeing how powerful the tests were, this quickly became a cause for public concern. For example, one test carried out in 1954 was so strong that it matched a blast from 15 million tons of TNT. It also filled the nearby islands with radiation and ash.

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Source: Alejandro Navarro Yanez/Twitter

As testing went on, one specific isotope was the primary subject of concern on everyone’s lips. That is, strontium-90.

What is Strontium-90?

Strontium-90, when it occurs naturally, has numerous scientific benefits. However, it had become notorious for being toxic and reactive when it is produced due to nuclear fission. This prompted the American public’s outrage when they discovered it was being tested.

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Source: Wikipedia

Adlai Stevenson, a Democratic presidential candidate at the time, spoke about the toxicity of this substance during the period leading to the elections in 1956. Three years later, there were reports of radioactive deposits in milk and wheat in the Northern United States.

Why Use Baby Teeth For Testing?

The scientists mentioned above were from St. Louis University and the Washington University School of Dental Medicine. They collaborated with the Greater St. Louis Citizens’ Committee for Nuclear Information to use baby teeth to test for isotopes.

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Source: Missouri Encyclopedia

The reason for this isn’t far-fetched—infants and toddlers are typically among the age groups worst affected by radiation. Besides that, access to baby teeth is pretty easy. As such, there was no better way to test for strontium-90 than examining a child’s tooth.

Compassionate Scientist Tries to Sound the Alarm

Kathleen Lonsadale, a well-known pacifist and scientist, published her book, Is Peace Possible?, in the mid-1950s. In it, she disclosed that children easily absorbed strontium-90, which could make them develop bone tumors.

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Source: The Royal Society/Twitter

Unfortunately, the harm was already done as British and American official reports stated that there were already significant amounts of the isotope in kids living in the US and the UK.

Donating Teeth For Science

When the baby teeth survey started, reports showed that at least 400 atomic bombs had already been tested above ground. There were also concerns about children absorbing strontium-90 while drinking milk and water. Since many of the nuclear tests occurred in Nevada, St. Louis was the perfect location for this study, as it was fairly far away.

Source: Missouri Encyclopedia

Scientists Barry Commoner and Ursula Franklin, as well as Doctors Eric and Louise Reiss, encouraged children in various St. Louis schools to mail in their teeth for the survey by using “I gave my tooth to science” posters as incentives.

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Testing Results Confirmed Their Fears

The team obtained at least 320,000 children’s teeth for the survey that lasted 12 years. As predicted, the result of the study showed that babies were absorbing the isotope. 

Source: Missouri Encyclopedia

According to the study, babies born in 1963 after most of the tests were carried out had 50 times more of the isotope in their teeth than those born in 1950. Bottle-fed children had the highest levels of strontium-90 in their teeth.

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The Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963

Following the above findings, in 1963 President John F. Kennedy facilitated the signing into law of The Partial Test Ban Treaty. The US, Soviet Union, and Great Britain signed the treaty two months after Dr. Eric Reiss presented the survey result to the American Senate Committee.

Source: Getty Images

This was a laudable development as it prohibited nuclear explosions in the atmosphere, underwater, and outer space.

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Years Later, Finally a Full Ban

Unfortunately, as the name suggests, the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963 didn’t address the issue of nuclear testing in its entirety—it still allowed underground testing on the condition that the radioactive fallout didn’t exceed the boundaries of the country conducting the test.

Source: This Day in History/YouTube

Only about 33 years later was another ban that prohibited all testing of nuclear bombs signed.

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Rediscovering the Baby Teeth Survey

About 20 years ago, researchers re-discovered the brilliance of the scientists that conducted the baby teeth survey. This time, they decided to slowly but steadily collect and preserve data from the study. This process involved the entry of note cards containing information about all the teeth donors.

Source: This Day in History/YouTube

The Radiation and Public Health Project accepted the teeth donations in the hopes that it would not only be useful for their research but also aid future scientists as they undertake further research.

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