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Photography by AP Photo, courtesy of Joseph Mangano
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The cloud was a shade of pink unlike any found in nature. For hours, it hung over Cedar City, Utah. Couples strolled outside. Children played in the freshly fallen snow. They didn’t realize, of course, that they were in danger.
In 1951, the first nuclear-test explosion at the nearby Nevada test site had flashed so bright, a mail-truck driver in Orderville, Utah, thought Russians had nuked Los Angeles. A cloud of fallout 300 miles wide blossomed almost instantly, then blew away on an easterly wind. Though neighboring areas saw it in pink clouds, the radioactive fallout mostly stayed in the air and came down, invisible and tasteless, as precipitation.
Though the fallout was a health hazard, the U.S. was in the middle of the Cold War; for many, the nuclear tests were like warning shots for the Russians. “I never saw a prettier sight,” wrote one columnist. “It was like a letter from home or the firm handshake of someone you admire and trust.”
In 1953, a series of weapons tests included “dirty” blasts, combining radioactive material with typical explosives. A quarter of the sheep in Utah and Nevada died within months. Concerned farmers called the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, which ran the nuclear program. Investigators discovered that the sheep’s gastrointestinal tracts showed high levels of radiation. The commission claimed the sheep died from malnutrition, however, and testing went on.
During the run-up to the 1956 presidential election, Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson spoke about the dangers of radioactive elements in fallout, particularly strontium-90, a metal with a half-life of 30 years. The body metabolizes it like calcium, making it especially harmful to infants and toddlers. Stevenson called it “the most dreadful poison in the world.” Though the Illinois governor lost to Gen. Dwight Eisenhower that November, fallout had become a major concern to the rest of the nation.
The next year, Nobel Prize–winning chemist Linus Pauling visited Washington University to speak about fallout’s dangers. While there, he drafted a petition demanding a ban on nuclear testing as a first step toward multilateral disarmament; 9,000 scientists eventually signed it, and Pauling presented it to the United Nations in January 1958. Wash. U. faculty members also took action. Botanist Barry Commoner and other professors, as well as concerned citizens, formed the Greater St. Louis Citizens’ Committee for Nuclear Information, or the CNI.
“The CNI was trying to bring information to the public,” says Michael Friedlander, professor emeritus at Wash. U. and a founding member of the group. “The committee felt the information coming out of government labs was not complete and was not accurate.” Friedlander and other professors helped edit the CNI’s journal, Nuclear Information, and gave lectures across St. Louis.
What they really wanted, though, was to find out how much strontium-90 was getting into our bodies. But testing required bone samples, which were hard to get in large numbers. Then Herman Kalckar, a scientist at the National Institutes of Health, suggested using baby teeth.
St. Louis was an ideal place to begin the study. The U.S. Public Health Service had been monitoring radioactive elements in air, water, and milk samples in nine different cities since 1956. St. Louis topped the list for having the highest levels of strontium-90 in milk, tainted by dairy cows grazing on grass covered in radioactive material. With almost $200,000 from the National Institute of Dental Research and support from the schools of dentistry at both Wash. U. and Saint Louis University, the St. Louis Baby Tooth Survey was ready to begin.
"I knew more about nuclear isotopes than I did about baseball by the time I was 8,” says Eric Reiss. His mother, Dr. Louise Reiss, directed the Baby Tooth Survey from 1959 to 1962, and his father, Dr. Eric Reiss, a Wash. U. professor, presented their findings to the U.S. Senate. “My father was a Jewish refugee from Austria,” Reiss says. “He was painfully aware of how things could go wrong and understood the dangers of keeping your mouth shut.”
Reiss remembers volunteers coming to his home, before the CNI had offices, to sort baby teeth. Reiss’ mother was so worried about strontium-90, she only let him drink powdered milk.
Each tooth was submitted with a 3- by 5-inch card that contained information about the donor. In return, each donor received a small button picturing a gap-toothed smiling kid that read, “I gave my tooth to science.”
The CNI spoke to local dentists and church groups, organized semiannual Tooth Roundups, and bought TV spots featuring a tooth fairy who asked kids to donate. Mayor Raymond Tucker even proclaimed a Tooth Survey Week.
By the end of 1959, volunteers had collected more than 14,000 teeth, and Louise was running tests. Since strontium-90 levels in an individual tooth were too small to be measured, the teeth were batched according to criteria such as age, neighborhood, and duration of breast-feeding.
By 1961, the survey was collecting 750 teeth a week. That year, Louise published her findings in the peer-reviewed journal Science. A simple chart told the story: Children born in 1954 had four times as much strontium-90 in their teeth as those born in 1951. “The upward trend with time may be correlated with increasing dietary concentrations of strontium-90,” Louise concluded.
After the results were published, the Baby Tooth Survey came under fire from nuclear-program supporters. Pauling had revealed the names of four faculty members at Wash. U. who’d helped circulate the petition, and the St. Louis Globe-Democrat called for the professors to be fired.
Yet the Baby Tooth Survey continued. Harold Rosenthal, the lab director at Wash. U., took over the survey after Louise left. (Eric accepted a professorship at the University of Chicago in late 1963.) Rosenthal later published further findings: Children born in 1957 had nine times more strontium-90 in their teeth than those born in 1951.
In August 1963, a U.S. Senate committee heard testimony about a limited test-ban treaty that would stop aboveground nuclear testing in the U.S., Great Britain, and the Soviet Union.
Dr. Eric Reiss testified: “Communities scattered throughout the continental United States have been exposed to fallout so intense as to represent a medically unacceptable hazard to children who may drink fresh locally produced milk.”
After the Senate endorsed the ban, President John F. Kennedy signed the legislation into law 50 years ago this month, in October 1963—just over six weeks before he was assassinated. It’s considered among his greatest accomplishments.
That fall, the phone rang at a house on Waterman Avenue. Little Eric Reiss picked up. “This is John Kennedy,” the voice on the other end of the line said. “Can I speak with your mom?”
Naturally, the Baby Tooth Survey continued.
After strontium-90 levels peaked in 1964—when levels were 20 times what they’d been for kids born in 1951—studies indicated that levels were steadily declining with time, as were cases of cancer in children under 4. But the survey had an ongoing impact: Around the world, similar studies would be done to test radiation levels in the years to come, though none reached the magnitude of the St. Louis study. “There are a lot of people all over the nation who didn’t die because of the test-ban treaty,” says Reiss. “That all started in St. Louis with some concerned citizens who had a very, very smart idea.”
The Baby Tooth Survey concluded in 1970. All told, about 320,000 teeth were collected. Not all of them were used, so some were placed in storage—and forgotten.
Decades later, Joseph Mangano, executive director of the nonprofit Radiation and Public Health Project, began work on a similar survey to monitor children living near nuclear reactors. “It was based on the St. Louis model, and I got to know a number of people in St. Louis,” he says. In 2001, a professor at Wash. U. told him that boxes of baby teeth had been discovered at Tyson Research Center—85,000 teeth in all.
Mangano took them, with the aim of gauging long-term health risks of nuclear fallout. He hoped to see whether increased strontium-90 levels in baby teeth correlated with early cancer deaths. His study found that men who grew up in St. Louis in the early ’60s who had died of cancer in middle age had twice as much strontium-90 in their baby teeth as men who were still living. (Mangano’s study, however, has so far been too small to be conclusive.)
And Mangano learned something else from the study. In 2001, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch put his contact information in an article, asking people who’d donated to the study years earlier to contact him. Mangano received letters from more than 2,200 donors or their parents. Many wanted to discuss health issues. Some just wanted to reminisce.
“I was a member of Operation Tooth Club,” wrote Pam Fahrendorf. “I gave my teeth to science. I had a card that was lost in 1980, when my wallet was stolen, and I have been sad about that to this day.”
One woman remembered accidentally washing her son’s I Gave My Tooth… button. “He was heartbroken,” she recalls. “I contacted the survey, and he was sent another pin, with a note that said, ‘Anything to mend a broken heart.’”
One man laughingly remembered being furious with his mom for giving his tooth to “some dumb doctors,” instead of the tooth fairy. But saving a life with a tooth? It was better than any deal the tooth fairy had going.