85,000 baby teeth found at Washington U.-St. Louis

By By U Wire

By U Wire

ST. LOUIS, Mo.?If the tooth fairy had flown into the dark, musty Washington University storage facility in May along with some administrators on a spring cleaning mission, her reaction would have been similar to someone who had just won the enamel lottery, as 85,000 baby teeth were discovered in an ammunition bunker at WU’s Tyson Research Center.

But had the tooth fairy known what was in store for the teeth, Andrew Johnstone, the biology department business manager, said her response should have been, “Whoa, this is going to cost me.”

For Johnstone, one of the people who discovered the teeth, it was an eerie portal to the past. The teeth are the forgotten remains of the world-famous St. Louis Baby Tooth Survey, which took place from 1958 to 1970.

At the height of the Cold War, the United States set off over 200 atmospheric nuclear tests at their Nevada Test Site. The Baby Tooth Survey was developed in order to determine the effect of nuclear fallout on humans, specifically children.

With the campaigning of the Citizens Committee for Nuclear Information, the scientific analysis of Harold Rosenthal, biochemist for WU’s former School of Dentistry, and the funding of the U.S. Public Health Service and Leukemia Society of Missouri and Illinois, the survey materialized and received an incredible response. By its end, the project had collected almost 300,000 baby teeth mostly from the St. Louis area.

The project’s purpose was to measure the amount of radioactive material absorbed by humans, most specifically investigating Strontium 90. Created by bomb blasts, Strontium 90 is readily absorbed by the growing teeth of fetuses and infants. It is a harmful material itself, but more importantly, it is an indicator of exposure to hazardous substances such as radioactive iodine.

Rosenthal found that the amount of Strontium 90 in the children’s teeth was directly related to the amount of nuclear testing in the year of their birth. This discovery significantly contributed to the public appeal for a moratorium on nuclear tests and led to the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty that President Kennedy signed in 1963.

The project came to an abrupt halt in 1970, during the Nixon administration, when its funding grant was cut. The remaining teeth were shipped to the Tyson Center for long term storage, where they remained for over three decades until they were unearthed in May.

The administrators found “piles and piles” of cardboard boxes full of manila envelopes containing the teeth. Johnstone said that the teeth did not smell bad, but he was unable to comment on the presence of cavities: “I didn’t look too closely at them.”

U Wire