ST. LOUIS — About 85,000 baby teeth collected from 1959 to 1970 and discovered only recently could help pinpoint whether fallout from Cold War nuclear bomb tests caused cancer and other health problems years later, researchers say.
The teeth from the St. Louis Baby Tooth Survey determined that children were absorbing radioactive fallout from nuclear bomb tests by the United States and the Soviet Union. The study received international attention and helped persuade the nation to adopt a 1963 treaty banning atmospheric bomb tests.
The teeth were found in May in hundreds of boxes by Washington University officials cleaning out a school bunker where they’d been stored since the 1970s. They were in small envelopes fastened by rusty paper clips to cards with details about the children who gave the teeth to science instead of the tooth fairy.
"We flipped out when we heard about the 85,000 teeth," Joseph Mangano, national coordinator with the independent, nonprofit Radiation and Public Health Project research group, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for a story Friday. "It was like an early Christmas present."
Now, researchers in New York are hoping to find the owners of the teeth and determine whether they have experienced health problems such as thyroid cancer in the decades since.
Mangano wants anyone born and living in St. Louis from the late 1940s through the 1960s — especially if they believe they submitted teeth — to contact his group. If matched with any of the baby teeth, the person would be mailed a health questionnaire.
"I see no reason not to join in a study like that, to be part of history," said Eric Pickles, given that his is included among the baby teeth. Pickles, 43, said he hasn’t had health problems.
After World War II, the U.S. government set off about 100 nuclear bombs in aboveground tests in the West. Public concern about radioactive fallout rose as scientists began to find it in the environment and milk supply downwind from the explosions.
The survey, which began in late 1958, became so well-known that letters addressed simply "Tooth Fairy, St. Louis" got to the committee’s office. By the time it ended in 1970, the project had collected nearly 300,000 baby teeth, mostly within a 150-mile radius of St. Louis.
All seemed forgotten until this spring, when the teeth were found.
The new study has no funding. The study’s results will be published in peer-reviewed medical journals, Mangano said.
On the Net: Washington University: www.wustl.edu
Radiation and Public Health Project: www.radiation.org
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