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Baby teeth from the '50s still helping medicine

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 21, 2008 - Back in 1963, a collection of biological specimens from St. Louis played an important role in history. The annual increase in radioactivity in more than 300,000 baby teeth collected from local children, together with a sharp rise nationally in childhood cancers, convinced President John F. Kennedy to sign an agreement ending above-ground nuclear testing.

The St. Louis Baby Tooth Survey was operated by the Committee on Nuclear Information, a group of St. Louis scientists, physicians, dentists and concerned laypersons. The group hypothesized that radioactive fallout from atomic bomb tests in Nevada was finding its way into milk. Children who drank that milk would incorporate radioactive strontium 90 into their fast-growing teeth and bones. (Strontium 90 is a stable radioactive isotope that can substitute for calcium in biological reactions.)

The survey, which ran from 1958 to 1970, found a direct correlation between frequency of testing and the amount of radioactivity in the teeth. After the survey, the teeth were stored and forgotten. But in 2001 workers, cleaning out an old ammunition bunker at Washington University’s Tyson Valley, rediscovered them. The teeth found their way to New York, where a private research group called the Radiation and Public Health Project has recently obtained the funding to use these same teeth to study cancer epidemiology.

They will identify 100 male baby-tooth donors who have had cancer, and another 200 donors who have remained cancer-free. The researchers will then measure the strontium 90 still in the teeth, and see if there is a correlation between exposure to radioactivity in early childhood and later development of cancer.

The choice of males for the initial study is not sexist. It is simply convenient. Many women will have married and changed names. About a thousand people have already contracted the project to volunteer, so women will no doubt be included if there is a phase two.

Jo Seltzer is a freelance writer with more than 30 years on the research faculty at the Washington University School of Medicine and seven years teaching tech writing at WU's engineering school. 

Jo Seltzer

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