Coalition Report

by Kathleen Logan Smith
Director of Environmental Policy Coalition For The Environment

Radioactive Baby Tooth Survey Returns

While many areas of our region remain contaminated from our role in the purification of uranium for atomic weapons, our atomic history has another side too. We can celebrate a group of scientists at Washington University and community activists who launched the “Baby Tooth Survey” in 1958 which ultimately lead to the end of atmospheric bomb testing.

The Baby Tooth Survey was a landmark study that measured the levels of Strontium-90 in the baby teeth of St. Louis children. Strontium-9 is a radioactive isotope only created through nuclear fission by nuclear weapons or nuclear reactors. It resembles calcium, making baby teeth optimal for study. Researchers found that Strontium-90 concentrations in baby teeth of persons born in 1964 were 50 times higher than those of persons born in 1950. Many St. Louisans recall sending in their baby teeth for the survey and receiving a button that said, “I gave my tooth to science”.

Children’s teeth became tragic and unfortunate carriers for radioactive fallout as Strontium-90 moved up the food chain. Detonating nuclear weapons in the atmosphere led to “fallout” landing in farm fields. Cows ate the grass, children drank the cow’s milk, and Strontium-90 was passed from weapons testing to children’s teeth.
Efforts of Washington University scientists and St. Louis citizens helped lead to John F. Kennedy signing the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty fifty years ago in 1963, which contributed to the end of atmospheric bomb testing.

The Radiation Public Health Project (RHPH) recently received 85,000 baby teeth uncovered from the original survey at Washington University in St. Louis for further study. What does this mean for the now-grown children who contributed those teeth? RHPH and the Missouri History Museum hosted a panel discussion on August 1, 2013 on the Baby Tooth Survey and the atomic legacy. Scheduled panelists included Joe Mangano, Executive Director of MHPH; Dr. Michael Friedlander, physics professor at Washington University; and Denise Brock, who was instrumental in getting the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act passed by Congress, which compensated workers exposed to radiation during World War II and beyond. If you gave your teeth to science, you can help with a long-term health study. Visit RHPH’s website: www.radiation.org.

In the 70 years since the first atom was split with uranium purified here in our midst, safely storing the wastes has proved problematic. Hanford, Washington is one of the latest disaster stories as leaking tanks contaminate groundwater and threaten the Columbia River. St. Charles, Missouri hosts a tomb of radioactive waste at Weldon Springs. In St. Louis, we are in the unique position of having nuclear weapons waste threatened by a subsurface landfill fire at the West Lake landfill in Bridgeton.

From mining areas in the Southwest to far-flung processing and power facilities, nuclear sites all over the nation are now in expensive clean up and decommissioning phases. Americans continue to pay dearly for use of the atom.

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