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Citizen Nuclear Science

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Even today, government and industry proceed ahead with new technologies with nothing close to appropriate monitoring and testing to demonstrate its effects on people before they happen (see fracking for one example). That was even more true during the Cold War, when atmospheric nuclear testing was taking place without the slightest clue how all that radiation might affect humans far away from the test sites. In St. Louis, citizens worried about radioactive fallout devised a plan to collect baby teeth from children to see what was happening.

This group, the Greater St. Louis Citizens’ Committee for Nuclear Information (CNI), brought together physics, biology and dentistry faculty from Washington University and Saint Louis University with laypeople (many of them volunteers from civic and social organizations such as the League of Women Voters) in its membership. Members wrote essays for publication in general-interest magazines, stuffed envelopes, and gave talks to local Kiwanis Clubs and other interested members of the public about the basics of atomic science, explaining what we knew—what isotopes are, for example—and what we didn’t know—most pressingly, how radioactive fallout from nuclear testing affects the body. Members also took part in what turned out to be more than a decade of scientific data collection for a project inspired by Herman Kalckar’s short article on teeth as sources of data on radioisotope absorption levels.

Kalckar’s article established a method by which researchers could chart the levels of radiation absorbed by human bodies. Yet establishing baseline exposure levels for the years prior to massive multiple test detonations would require immediate action. In 1951, only about 24 nuclear test detonations had taken place, many of them relatively small compared to the kiloton or megaton levels of tests between 1952 and 1958. If scientists acted quickly, they could collect the data inscribed in deciduous teeth during the period preceding the 1952 and 1954 detonations of hydrogen bombs. The evidence of those baseline levels of absorbed radiation from the early years of testing was all around, in the mouths of children. It slept in their jaws, was nestled under their pillows and thrown away or stashed in drawers after being exchanged for fifty cents from the “Good Fairy.”

CNI initiated the Baby Tooth Survey in December of 1958 with a grant from the United States Public Health Service (later funding came from subsequent Public Health Service grants, along with funds from the Leukemia Guild of Missouri and Illinois.) Louise Reiss, an internist at the St. Louis City Health Department, helmed the study, which aimed to collect 50,000 teeth a year from children in the St. Louis area in order to acquire sufficient quantities of tooth material for testing.

Such an ambitious effort required the participation of every school in the St. Louis area and a publicity blitz to match. Reiss met with the superintendents of each school system. She met with dentists, school librarians, YMCA directors, local dental and pharmaceutical professional groups. A 1964 report on the study detailed the extraordinary support Reiss won from the community:

During the weeks of the semi-annual Tooth Round-ups, public service time is given generously by radio and television stations to publicize the needs of the Survey. Mayor Raymond Tucker has proclaimed Tooth Survey Week. Last December the Veiled Prophet queen, St. Louis’ traditional reigning beauty, celebrated the Survey’s fifth birthday with a party at Children’s Hospital. A large model of a tooth (with a child inside) gives out forms in department stores. And, most important, dentists are reminded by letter and at conventions how helpful it will be if they make the forms available in their offices. So well known has BTS become that letters from children, addressed simply “Tooth Fairy, St. Louis,” reach their destination at the CNI office.

Pretty bad that it took everyday citizens to develop even the most basic monitoring of how nuclear fallout was affecting children. But then that’s the Cold War for you.

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