Tooth donors need a checkup
* It would be helpful to locate many St Louis tooth donors willing to fill out a two-page questionnaire on their medical histories since birth.
In 1958, Barry Commoner and Harold Rosenthal studied radioactivity levels in baby teeth of St. Louis children. They found that the radioactive strontium levels in the baby teeth of children born from 1945 to 1965 had risen 100-fold. Over the same period, the U.S. Public Health Service had found an equally alarming rise in the percentage of underweight live births and of childhood cancer. These studies helped persuade President John F. Kennedy to negotiate a treaty with the Soviet Union to end above-ground testing of atomic bombs in 1963.
Recently Washington University gave our group some 85,000 baby teeth left over from the Commoner-Rosenthal study. The children whose baby teeth we now have -- now adults in their 40s and 50s -- can help make further advances in the scientific understanding of the later effects of exposure at birth to nuclear fallout. For example, a recent study by the National Cancer Institute of variations in fallout from the Nevada Test site found that, while in general the most important factors were proximity and rainfall levels, geographic exposure to fallout was governed in any given year by chance. This suggests that pregnant women who ingested food or milk that came from an area that was a radiological "hot spot" would be far more likely to bear children with extremely high levels of Sr90 in their baby teeth, most of which would be transmitted to the developing fetus during pregnancy.
In fact this is what we have learned from our current "Tooth Fairy" study of Sr90 levels in the baby teeth of nearly 3,000 children born since 1980. As with the St. Louis study, we found average annual levels as high as had been found in the late 1950s, and a rising trend that was correlated with a corresponding rising trend of underweight live births and childhood cancer. We also found that the annual average levels were heavily influenced by a relatively small number of children whose teeth had extremely high levels that were often more than 10 times higher than the annual average.
On the whole, this is good news because it means that most children may be relatively unaffected by exposure to nuclear fallout. The bad news is that among the 80 million children born during the bomb test years 1945 to 1965, the fetal development of a small percentage may have been badly damaged, so they would be particularly vulnerable to physical and mental problems. This is why it would be helpful to locate many St Louis tooth donors willing to fill out a two-page questionnaire on their medical histories since birth.
We have received more than 2,000 messages from such donors. To check whether we have their teeth, we need a person's birthdate, maiden name and mother's name. Along with this information, about 2 or 3 percent have added some truly heartbreaking stories of premature cancer and other illnesses, which underlines the importance of our being able to measure the Sr90 levels in their teeth. Back in 1958, Rosenthal did not have the modern equipment we now have, capable of measuring the very tiny levels of Sr90 in a single tooth. Consequently he secured his annual averages by batching many hundreds or more teeth each year, thus losing information on the range of variation among individual teeth.
If we could find several thousand St. Louis donors whose teeth we can measure individually, we may be able to ascertain the medical significance of having a high Sr90 level for any child born anywhere and at any time. Such information would be especially important for baby boomers, who will be making the key political decisions about our continued reliance on nuclear technology. Two European baby boomer leaders -- Tony Blair in England and Gerhardt Schroeder in Germany -- have already decided to phase out nuclear reactors in favor of solar energy sources.
Jay M. Gould is director of the Radiation and Public Health Project, New York. (www.radiation.org). He can be contacted at 302 West 86 St., New York, NY, 10024.
Published in Editorial on Tuesday, January 8, 2002.