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What Caused My Cancer? Radioactive Isotope in Baby Teeth May Be a Clue

by Joseph Mangano

Sep 8, 2021 | Health, Politics

PHOTO CREDIT: 
Illustration by Edel Rodriguez

Carolyn Schulte remembers the events of early 1972. She was 12 years old and finishing the sixth grade in a St. Louis suburb. Her dad was a dentist, as was her grandfather and great-uncle. Her mom stayed home to manage the house and raise her and her brother, John, then age 10.

John began to develop headaches that spring. At first, nobody was especially concerned. John was a healthy, friendly boy who liked a good laugh; enjoyed drawing and watching wrestling on TV; and loved chocolate milk, cheeseburgers, and French fries.

As the year progressed, the pleasures and outward normality of childhood were taken from John in a dizzying, downward spiral of symptoms, hospital stays, missed diagnoses, overwhelming health bills . . . and finally, death from brain cancer in December, just days after his eleventh birthday.

“Everyone was devastated,” remembered Carolyn. “But right away, we all thought, ‘What caused this?’ Nobody had the first idea of what brought the cancer on.”

For Carolyn and many others living in the St. Louis area, whose family members had cancer in the 1970s and in subsequent decades, it wasn’t until recently that they learned of a possible cause of those deadly illnesses. An article published last March in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported on the revival of a famous study that measured radioactive fallout from aboveground atom bomb tests and its absorption in humans.

Undertaken jointly in the 1950s and ’60s by the Committee for Nuclear Information and Washington University in St. Louis, the study used donated baby teeth to gauge the presence of radioactive isotopes—specifically the cancer-causing isotope strontium 90, or Sr-90—in children.

The scientist on the team with the highest profile was Barry Commoner, a cellular biologist at Washington University and a member of the CNI board. Commoner was instrumental in developing the project and raising the funds to sustain it. He became familiar to national audiences in the 1970s via his prescient articles in The New Yorker on the fragility of the environment, and in 1980 he ran for president as the candidate of the Citizens Party.

Baby teeth are well regarded as research tools for their ease of collection and documentation. They fall out, people keep them, they are easy to collect from the general population, and they are easily dated. It’s relatively simple for researchers to establish the location of the birth mother during pregnancy and during the first year of the child’s life, two important data points. Baby teeth also make it easier for scientists working on controversial public health matters to conduct their research out in the open and to be less vulnerable to government censorship.

Carolyn inquired if John’s or her teeth were in the study. Sure enough, long before John was sick, his parents had donated one of his teeth to be included in the project.

During the late 1950s, the most alarming feature of the growing Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union was a fierce competition to test and build as many atomic bombs as possible. The threat of nuclear war—the unthinkable—was very real, and leaders on both sides pushed hard to develop the largest stockpile of the most advanced nuclear weapons.

The United States would eventually conduct 206 aboveground bomb tests in the South Pacific and Nevada, generating fallout in the form of over 100 cancer-causing isotopes, most of which are not found otherwise in nature. Fallout drifted in the atmosphere across the continental United States, returned to earth through precipitation, and entered human bodies through the food chain.

Some of the bombs that were tested had a power equivalent to more than 1,000 times the force of the Hiroshima bomb. Along with fears of possible nuclear war, many were concerned with the actual buildup of fallout in the population—especially in children, who are most vulnerable to its toxic effects. Government officials secretly collected bones and tissues from deceased Americans and found large rises in Sr-90 that corresponded with the timing of the tests. These findings were never publicly released, and the testing continued.

Virtually all military leaders and many political leaders of the day had no intention of stopping bomb tests. Grassroots opposition represented the only chance to force a shift in government policy to protect public health. Scientists and citizens worked together in the St. Louis study, in which at least 320,000 baby teeth were collected and measured for Sr-90. The dramatic results showed children born in 1963 had 50 times more Sr-90 than those born in 1951, when large-scale testing began.

These conclusions were published in peer-reviewed medical journals and landed eventually on President John F. Kennedy’s desk. Kennedy referenced fallout buildup in children in a July 1963 speech (“with cancer in their bones, with leukemia in their blood, with poison in their lungs”). After hearing expert testimony on the buildup of carcinogens from fallout detected in the population, the Senate ratified a ban on all aboveground tests. Kennedy signed the treaty, as did leaders from the Soviet Union and United Kingdom, in October 1963. Although the test ban was billed as an anti–nuclear war treaty, in truth it was as much an environmental health measure, which had been influenced, at least in part, by the baby teeth research project. (Below-ground testing continued in the United States through 1992.)

But it was not until 1999, following the end of the Cold War and the collapse of Soviet Union, that the National Cancer Institute, a federal agency, estimated that between 11,000 and 212,000 Americans developed thyroid cancer from fallout from the tests. This disclosure was accompanied by a second NCI study, released three years later, which estimated 11,000 had died of cancer caused by exposure to the fallout.

Although both estimates are considered conservative, in light of the approximately 200 million Americans who were exposed to bomb fallout, these disclosures represented the first time the U.S. government had officially acknowledged the probable health impacts of the test program on U.S. citizens.

The studies had actually been completed five years previously and had remained under seal. Robert Alvarez, a regular contributor to The Washington Spectator on nuclear and environmental matters, was working in the Department of Energy during the Clinton years and persuaded Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary to release the findings.

The St. Louis Baby Tooth Survey, which also showed a 50 percent decline in measurable Sr-90 in the four years after the test ban, ended in late 1970. In 2001, Washington University staff made a surprise discovery of tens of thousands of baby teeth held over from the study and stored in a remote ammunition bunker outside St. Louis.

The University donated the teeth to the Radiation and Public Health Project, a New Jersey–based research and education group. RPHP was engaged in its own tooth study, the measurement of Sr-90 levels in children living both close to and far from domestic nuclear reactors. With the trove of baby teeth from the St. Louis study, RPHP was determined to examine the critical question the original study hadn’t pursued: What was the impact of bomb fallout on public health and cancer risk?

In 2011, RPHP published its first article on a study of in-body health hazards using baby teeth in the International Journal of Health Services. The study showed that a sample of teeth from St. Louis residents who died of cancer by age 50 had more than double the Sr-90 concentration of persons who were healthy at age 50.

In 2017, RPHP began a partnership with Marc Weisskopf, the Harvard University School of Public Health professor who had a long history of using teeth in research. Harvard secured a grant from the National Institutes of Health to use a sample of teeth to study early-life exposure to neurotoxic metals (hazardous substances such as industrial solvents and heavy metals including arsenic, lead, and mercury) and disease risk later in life.

The NIH grant supported the entry of information on the baby teeth and their donors into a digitized, searchable database. The file contains just fewer than 100,000 teeth from 37,000 donors. All are “Baby Boomers,” born from 1946 to 1965, and they include persons born in all 50 states and 45 foreign countries.

Following the Post-Dispatch article this past March, hundreds of people from the St. Louis area contacted RPHP to inquire if their teeth were included in the collection. About 40 percent of the requests showed at least one donated tooth, and some as many as 14.

RPHP’s next step will be to expand on its 2011 study. About 6,000 of the 37,000 tooth donors are now deceased, and about 1,800 of these are estimated to have been cancer deaths. The identity and cause of death of each of the deceased will be cross-referenced with the National Death Index, a centralized database of death record information compiled from state vital statistics offices. RPHP will then be able to test for Sr-90 levels in the teeth of a cohort of known cancer victims who were children at the time of the aboveground atomic test program.

On a related front, RPHP held a press conference in March 2021 to announce a new report showing a widening gap between cancer death rates in Monroe County, Michigan, and the rest of the United States—especially in children. Monroe County is located just south of Detroit and is the site of the Fermi 2 nuclear reactor, which began operating in the mid-1980s. The press conference notably included RPHP board member and public health activist Christie Brinkley, a native of Monroe County.

RPHP contends Fermi may have played a role in these unusual trends. Government has essentially ignored the issue of the documented prevalence of cancer among populations living near nuclear reactors. Only one federal study has been performed in the 64 years since the first reactor became operational.

RPHP also announced it was asking for donations of baby teeth from Monroe County children in order to test for Sr-90. The group will compare results with Sr-90 levels from a sample of teeth in the Detroit area from the earlier BTS study—the first-ever comparison of early-life exposures to atom bomb fallout and nuclear reactor emissions.

Newport Beach, Michigan, is less than five miles from the Fermi plant. The people who live there know about the Fermi 1 reactor, which operated briefly in the 1960s and had a near-meltdown in 1966. And they know that for the last 36 years, Fermi 2 has been operating around the clock. There has been no meltdown, but there have been daily releases of radioactive waste products—including Sr-90—which entered local air and water and the local food supply.

There were childhood cancers in Newport Beach in the 1970s, but at the time no one saw Fermi as a potential explanation for the tragedies. They were simply unusual events, with no known cause.

But things changed drastically in recent years, as unusual numbers of people in the Newport Beach community have been diagnosed with cancer, frequently in their forties and fifties. Experts have offered no explanation of why so many people living near the Fermi plants have been diagnosed with cancer so early in life. This year, after hearing about the RPHP report and the program to collect baby teeth, many Newport Beach residents recognized that the Sr-90 released from reactors like Fermi is the same Sr-90 found in those ominous mushroom clouds generated by bomb tests so many years ago.

For now, like Carolyn Schulte in St. Louis, the folks in Newport Beach await results—hoping for at least one conclusive factor in the search for a cause of the cancer that has ravaged their families.

Joseph Mangano is executive director of the Radiation and Public Health Project.

The detection of high concentrations of the radioactive isotope strontium 90 in baby teeth collected from the general population in the 1950s and ’60s persuaded President Kennedy to cancel further aboveground testing of atom bombs. But recognition of Sr-90’s extreme toxicity can be found in earlier discussions contemporaneous with World War II, as evidenced in correspondence between Robert Oppenheimer and Enrico Fermi, dated May 1943.

In the letter that follows, Oppenheimer, the theoretical physicist and director of the Los Alamos Laboratory who is often referred to as “the father of the atomic bomb,” writes to Enrico Fermi, who was himself described as “the architect of the nuclear age,” about the challenges of pursuing a secret plan to use enough Sr-90 to poison and kill at least half a million Germans.
—Joseph Mangano

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