How Baby Teeth Put an End to Nuclear Testing

7, December 2017
Green and white "I gave my tooth to science" button pinChildren who donated teeth to the Baby Tooth Survey received button pins in the mail like this one from 1969. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

“Any child with a wobbly baby tooth is a person of consequence in St. Louis, Mo.,” announced Newsweek in April 1960. Why would a national magazine make such a proclamation? Because St. Louis scientists were actively seeking the baby teeth of children raised during the 1950s and 1960s in order to test for exposure to nuclear radiation.

In 1965 the United States kicked off a decade-long era of aboveground H-bomb tests, exposing humans the world over to dangerous nuclear fallout. One testing by-product in particular, strontium-90 (Sr-90), followed the normal pathways of calcium in the human body, which it entered via milk from cows that had eaten contaminated grass. Because children were heavily exposed to cow’s milk in utero and early infancy while their baby teeth were forming, scientists believed they could trace the level of Sr-90 absorption in humans by analyzing baby teeth—but they would need hundreds of thousands of them to do so.

Color photo of baby tooth and information collected from Darryl A. Jackson for the Baby Tooth SurveyTooth and information collected from Darryl A. Jackson for the Baby Tooth Survey in 1966. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

Enter the Greater St. Louis Citizens’ Committee for Nuclear Information (CNI), formed by a group of researchers and other concerned individuals to begin raising awareness about the dangers of nuclear weapons testing. Aiding them were the primary caretakers of the city’s children: women.

Dr. Louise Reiss launched and managed CNI’s Baby Tooth Survey, overseeing a host of committed female volunteers who turned the survey into a marvel of grassroots environmental activism. These women coordinated “tooth roundups” in St. Louis schools and cataloged tens of thousands of teeth each year for analysis in a special lab at Washington University. They also made sure children who donated their teeth to science became official members of Operation Tooth Club, complete with a certificate and a shiny button pin.

Color photo of baby tooth and information collected from Sean O'Hearn for the Baby Tooth SurveyTooth and information collected from Sean O'Hearn for the Baby Tooth Survey in 1967. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

Grassroots activism led by St. Louis women and the formation of the Baby Tooth Survey in December 1958 likely contributed to President Dwight Eisenhower’s decision to halt H-bomb tests the following year. Then in 1963, the Baby Tooth Survey announced that Sr-90 uptake in children had risen 30 times since 1951. This news contributed to the swift passage of President John F. Kennedy’s treaty with Great Britain and the Soviet Union prohibiting nuclear weapons tests underwater, in the atmosphere, and in outer space.

With long-term testing bans in place, St. Louis’s anti-nuclear activists turned their attention to other important environmental issues, but the ideas and strategies developed over the lifespan of the Baby Tooth Survey (1958–1970) continued to influence later generations of environmental activists.

—Dr. Luke Ritter, lecturer at Troy University

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