Harvard University neuroscientist and epidemiologist Marc Weisskopf is interested in the idea that early childhood can determine one’s health trajectory for life.
As part of a multimillion-dollar federal grant to study exposure to metals, his team at Harvard will revive the Baby Tooth Survey in St. Louis, a famous study in the 1950s and ’60s that involved measuring radioactive fallout in about 320,000 donated teeth.
The leftover baby teeth from the Washington University-led research were discovered in 2001 in an old ammunition bunker at the university’s Tyson Research Center.
The teeth were donated to a small nonprofit, the Radiation and Public Health Project, whose director and sole employee Joe Mangano lives near Ocean City, New Jersey. The teeth are in a storage locker near his home.
But Mangano has maintained his excitement about possible discoveries to be made studying the teeth. A mutual friend introduced Mangano to Weisskopf, director of the Harvard Chan-NIEHS Center for Environmental Health, correctly guessing he would share in Mangano’s excitement.
“Teeth give this opportunity to get a picture of what is going on in early life,” Weisskopf said, “and the idea that some 60,000 people whose baby teeth are sitting in a closet somewhere is very intriguing to me.”
Part of the research will involve finding 1,000 adults in their 60s and 70s who participated in the Baby Tooth Survey and looking for associations between metal concentrations in their baby teeth and current cognitive health.
Most of the tooth survey participants are from the St. Louis area, and Missouri is home to about 33 Superfund sites — toxic waste dumps requiring federal long-term cleanup. Harvard’s study will require sending new toenail and blood samples.
The idea for collecting the baby teeth was hatched in the mid-1950s during the build-up of the Cold War between the U.S. and Soviet Union, which together tested hundreds of nuclear weapons.
About 100 took place at a Nevada testing site, where a few ended up dropping much of their fallout over the Midwest, including one of the largest — the Tumbler-Snapper George test on June 1, 1952, when a 2,700-pound nuclear bomb detonated atop a 300-foot tower.
High-altitude wind took the radioactive cloud in different directions across the country. Much of the radioactive material fell over Iowa, Missouri and Illinois in a rainstorm, author Richard Miller recounted for a Post-Dispatch story in 2002. Miller wrote “The U.S. Atlas of Nuclear Fallout, 1951-62.”
A group of prominent St. Louis scientists and physicians was concerned about the effects of radioactive fallout from the tests. They formed the Citizens Committee for Nuclear Information, and with help from Washington University, created the Baby Tooth Survey.
The survey was considered a great citizen-scientist collaboration, set out to determine whether children’s bodies were absorbing radioactive fallout from atmospheric nuclear weapons testing.
It entailed volunteers visiting schools, churches and PTA meetings, churches, libraries and dental clinics distributing registration forms. Between 1958 and 1970, parents sent in thousands of teeth along with their information cards.
The study found that children born at the height of the Cold War in 1963 had 50 times as much strontium 90, a radioactive isotope found in bomb fallout, in their teeth as children born in 1950 before most of the atomic bomb tests.
Strontium 90 had ended up in pastures, in grass consumed by goats and cows. It worked its way into children’s milk and showed up in children’s bones and teeth.
If you want to know if your baby teeth are included in the collection of the Radiation and Public Health Project, you can contact Joseph Mangano at email@example.com.