In this 1962 photo, Kim Garber and Russell Schrier proudly display the wide gap where their front baby teeth were. The two were among the many children in St. Louis, Missouri who donated their teeth to a study of the effects of radioactive strontium 90 on bones and teeth. (AP Images Archive photo)

Bombs, science, and baby teeth

By Robert Alvarez, Joseph Mangano, November 15, 2021

https://thebulletin.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/Toothless_Boys_AP_6201151203-150x150.jpg

In this 1962 photo, Kim Garber and Russell Schrier proudly display the wide gap where their front baby teeth were. The two were among the many children in St. Louis, Missouri who donated their teeth to a study of the effects of radioactive strontium 90 on bones and teeth. (AP Images Archive photo)

How many nuclear weapons can be detonated in support of weapons development or during a war before imperiling humans from radioactive fallout? That’s the question the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) asked in the 1950s. To find the answer, independent scientists and citizens turned to baby teeth. Lots and lots of baby teeth.

Why baby teeth? The AEC collected human tissues from around the globe (Kulp, 1957) to understand the cumulative impacts of radioactive fallout from nuclear testing. The most commonly measured isotope in these tissues—strontium 90 (sr 90)—is absorbed as if were calcium. This isotope lodges in human bone tissue for many years and was the principal contaminant of concern in fallout investigations known as Project Gabriel and Project Sunshine done in the early 1950s. This effort, which started as a health study, later inspired a political movement to end nuclear weapons testing.

REFERENCES:
ABC News Live. “World Wakes Up to Horrific Scientific History.” ABC News, 2005. https://web.archive.org/web/20190327103237/https://abcnews.go.com/International/story?id=80970&page=1

Borger, J. 2002. “Cancer Linked to Cold War Bomb Tests.” The Guardian, March 1. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2002/mar/01/research.medicalscience

As the coronavirus crisis shows, we need science now more than ever.

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