ST. LOUIS – A famous study involving the baby teeth of St. Louis area children helped lay the foundation for a treaty to ban atmospheric nuclear testing 60 years ago.
A group of scientists, led by physician Louise Reed and St. Louis-area professor Barry Commoner, launched the study in December 1958 through the Greater St. Louis Citizen’s Committee for Nuclear Information. The mission: To determine whether radioactive fallout and nuclear energy had a negative impact on children’s health.
From 1958 to 1970, researchers collected more than 320,000 baby teeth of children from various ages, primarily from those in the St. Louis area.
The study followed a 1956 report from the U.S. Public Health Service, which hinted that St. Louis and other Midwestern cities could have alarming levels of radioactivity in water, air and milk following above-ground nuclear tests around the United States. In the decade leading up to that, officials had moved forward with nearly 100 nuclear tests, some that happened above-ground and spurred concerns of exposure, according to the Arms Control Association.
Preliminary case studies determined that children born in 1963 had levels of strontium 90, a radioactive isotope found in bomb fallout, nearly 50 times higher than children born in 1950. A limited study published by Science Magazine in 1961 presented similar findings.
“The immediate radiation danger moved public opinion, which influenced Congress to pass and President John F. Kennedy to implement the Limited Test Ban Treaty in 1963,” said the Missouri History Museum on the research. “They knew that a by-product of nuclear weapons testing is death-dealing, cancer-causing radiation. Some elemental isotopes last for thousands of years while others decay quickly, but airborne debris drifts for miles from explosions, falling onto food and water.”
Kennedy campaigned for president in strong opposition to nuclear testing, according to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. However, he entered his term at the height of the Cold War and faced mounting pressure after the Soviet Union conducted dozens of above-ground nuclear tests. In 1962, he reluctantly announced that the United States would resume atmospheric testing.
As Kennedy attempted to negotiate a ban on such testing, the findings of the St. Louis baby tooth study came to his attention. Negotiations to end atmospheric radioactive testing, the issue at the center of the baby tooth study, intensified midway through 1963.
By July, Kennedy had reached an agreement with the Soviet Union to exclusively conduct nuclear tests underground. By August, government officials from the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States gathered in Moscow to sign what is officially known as the “Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapon Tests in the Atmosphere, in Outer Space and Under Water” or “Partial Test Ban Treaty.”
“Let us if we can step back from the shadows of war and seek out the way of peace. And if that journey is 1,000 miles or even more, let history record that we, in this land, at this time, took the first step,” said Kennedy on the agreement in a televised speech on July 26, 1963.
The initial baby tooth study continued through 1970. A research team acquired 85,000 of the tested teeth for a 2001 analysis that concluded 12 children who died of cancer had strontium 90 levels twice as high as others alive during the time of research. Some scientists denounce those findings to this day.
Now, the baby tooth study from decades ago carries new life in the form of a Harvard study. Researchers hope to collect tens of thousands and determine a possible connection between metals and cognitive decline at an older age. Harvard neuroscientist Marc Weisskopf launched the study in 2021, and one survey for the project remains ongoing.
According to a report from DrBicuspid.com, Japanese filmmaker Hideaki Ito is also working on a documentary about the original study and visited St. Louis last year for some groundwork.