A New Kind of Tooth Decay

When children in Western households lose their baby teeth, some parents don’t toss these precious memories in the bin. Instead, the family goes through a whole process of the child placing the tooth under their pillow, followed by the parents replacing the tooth with money or a small gift. After, many parents also decide to preserve the memory, which is why plenty of households own a jar of baby teeth. If a contemporary researcher mapped the number of households who kept a jar of baby teeth, the map would reveal a considerable gap of ‘teeth-less’ households in St. Louis, Missouri around the late 1950 until the early 1960. The children who lived there at that time didn’t give their teeth to the tooth-fairy. Instead, they gave their teeth to science: more precisely to The Baby Tooth Survey.

The Baby Tooth Survey was designed as a response to the fear that prevailed in an era of world-wide nuclear bomb testing. After World War II, both the United States and the former Soviet-Union were involved in excessive nuclear testing (Mangano & Sherman). Before the “Partial Test Ban Treaty” put an end to “above the ground” nuclear testing in 1963, both countries conducted a total of 422 tests, which resulted in the release of millions of radioactive particles in the surrounding areas’ atmospheres (Mangano & Sherman, pg. 137-158). One of the most measured particles was called strontium-90, which entered the human body through contaminated vegetables and meat.. When this isotope enters the human body, it is absorbed by bone and bone-like structures due to its chemical resemblance to calcium (Lord). Since the body metabolizes this isotope the same way it does with calcium, the need for information concerning possible effects on the human body became apparent.

In April 1958, scientists and concerned citizens of St. Louis, Missouri formed the Citizens Committee for Nuclear Information (CNI).  The CNI’s goal was to study the effects of nuclear fallout and share their findings with the public (Washington University School of Dental Medicine). Scientists especially wanted to examine the levels of strontium-90 and initially tried to do so by analyzing the bones of diseased people. However, they quickly thought of a better way to trace strontium-90: baby teeth (Familytree). Children born during periods of nuclear testing made the best possible test-subjects. The assumption was that they had been drinking a lot of contaminated cow’s milk containing strontium-90, which would be traceable in their teeth. In order to obtain the teeth, the CNI launched ‘The Baby Tooth Survey’ in 1958 under the supervision of Dr. Louise Reiss (Lord).

Over a course of 12 years, dentists, schools, churches and many other organizations helped with the distribution of the survey and the collection of the teeth. The biggest providers of the precious teeth, however, were the parents of the children themselves. Each tooth was sealed in a manila envelope and clipped to a 3×5 index card with information on the donor and the tooth. The children who donated their teeth were not left empty handed. They received a shiny, colorful button that read “I donated my tooth to science” that was given to them at collection locations or sent through the mail along with a certificate to state their official membership of the “operation tooth club” (Ritter). Many of the donors cherished these small tokens of appreciation. Some children who lost their button would even send letters to the CNI to request a new one (Jack & Steinhardt).

These buttons are sought-after collector’s items. The library and research center at Missouri Historical Society owns one of the buttons and so does the National Museum of American History. 

But what happened to the teeth?

In June 2001, researchers at Washington University in St. Louis stumbled upon thousands of tiny teeth, stored in cardboard shoe boxes and stacked away in the Tysons Valley bunkers used for storage by the university (Rubin). The teeth were donated to Joe Mangano, executive director of the Radiation and Public Project. Mangano and his colleagues continued research on the effect of nuclear fallout using the remaining teeth as a data set. Since strontium-90 has a half-life of 29 years and it takes about 200 years for radiation to disappear entirely, the fallout was still detectable in the teeth. By tracking down the children who donated the teeth, the researchers hoped to analyse their health and relate the results to the amount of strontium-90 found in the baby teeth. The results were published in the International journal of Health Services from December 2010, and implied that thousands of people died as a direct result of the nuclear fallout. Donors who died of cancer by the age of 50 had more than double the average level of radioactive strontium-90 than healthy donors of the same age. However, other scientists have commented on the issue that due to the small sample size, these findings can merely be described as ‘associations’ rather than a causal relation (Wald).




American Dental Association (2016, March 11). Accumulation of a Radioactive Isotope in Children’s Shed Deciduous Teeth Used to Estimate Radiation Exposure from Nuclear Testing and Accidents, Then and Now. Retrieved from https://www.ada.org/en/science-research/science-in-the-news/accumulation-of-a-radioactive-isotope-in-childrens-shed-deciduous-teeth

Familytree (s.d.). Baby Tooth Survey. Retrieved from https://www.familytree.com/blog/baby-tooth-survey/

Jack, C. & Steinhardt, S. (2014, November 26). Atomic Anxiety and the Tooth Fairy: Citizen Science in the Midcentury Midwest. Retrieved from http://theappendix.net/issues/2014/10/atomic-anxiety-and-the-tooth-fairy-citizen-science-in-the-midcentury-midwest

Lord, A. (2015, April 27). The Tooth Fairy goes scientific. Retrieved from http://americanhistory.si.edu/blog/tooth-fairy-goes-scientific

Mangano, J. & Sherman, J.D. (2013, August 5). The Legacy of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Retrieved from https://www.counterpunch.org/2013/08/05/the-legacy-of-the-comprehensive-test-ban-treaty/

Mangano, J.J., & Sherman, J.D. (2011). Elevated in vivo strontium-90 from Nuclear Weapons test fallout among cancer decedents. A case-control study of deciduous teeth. International Journal of Health Services, 41(1), 137-158.

Ritter, Luke (2017, December 14). How Baby Teeth Put an End to Nuclear Testing. Retrieved from http://mohistory.org/blog/how-baby-teeth-put-an-end-to-nuclear-testing/

Rubin, R (2002, January 29). Eyeing baby teeth from the Cold War era. Retrieved from http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/science/2002-01-29-baby-teeth.htm

Washington University School of Dental Medicine. (s.d.). St. Louis Baby tooth Survey, 1959-1970. Retrieved from http://beckerexhibits.wustl.edu/dental/articles/babytooth.html

Wald, Matthew. (2010, December 13). Study Of Baby Teeth Sees Radiation Effects. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/14/health/14cancer.html?_r=1&ref=matthewlwald

West, S. M. (2017, December 03). Survival of the Cryptic. Retrieved from https://limn.it/articles/survival-of-the-cryptic/.

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