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Seeking New Clues to Cancer Risks From Atom Bomb Tests

Baby Tooth Science

By JOE MANGANO | CounterPunch | December 22, 2010

The atom bomb tests over the Nevada desert are etched in the American consciousness, even though they ended nearly half a century ago. The clouds that looked like gigantic mushrooms rising into the stratosphere remind us of the Cold War-era American-Soviet race to test and manufacture as many nuclear weapons as possible to fight what many felt would be an inevitable nuclear war.

Those days are gone. The Cold War is over. Stockpiles of nuclear weapons are shrinking. All-out nuclear war, while still possible, is no longer regarded as inevitable. And testing has ended – in the atmosphere and below the ground. Thus, it is tempting to think of bomb tests as a relic of history, with no current relevance.

But the tests ARE relevant. The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty of 1996, ratified by 153 countries, has still not been endorsed by the U.S. Senate, or other atomic nations. Thus, testing could legally resume at any time. Moreover, research on health hazards of test fallout is far from complete.

Some want to close the book on bomb test studies, citing the age of the tests and the difficulty of understanding health risk. But measuring risk is possible, thanks to – of all things – baby teeth.

Atomic Tests in 1950s Create Need for First Tooth Studies

Studying radiation in baby teeth was an unknown technique when U.S. atmospheric nuclear weapons tests started. By the mid-1950s dozens of weapons had been detonated, including hydrogen bombs one thousand times more potent than atomic bombs. The 422 American and Soviet nuclear explosions into the atmosphere during the arms race equaled the yield of 40,000 Hiroshima bombs.

Fallout from bomb tests consisted of over 100 radioactive and cancer-causing chemicals, not found in nature. Each chemical affects the body differently. Iodine-131 attacks the thyroid gland, Cesium-137 disperses into all soft tissues, and Strontium-90 attaches to bone and teeth. The mushroom clouds in Nevada moved eastward with prevailing winds across the continent, where fallout re-entered the environment through precipitation. Scientific measurements showed that only 2 or 3 days after a Nevada explosion, fallout from the test could be present in rain or snow throughout the country, even the east coast 2500 miles away.

Soon after the Nevada tests began, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission began the first program measuring radioactivity levels in human bodies by testing Strontium-90 in bones from autopsies in the U.S. and in Europe. The AEC program showed that Sr-90 levels varied by geographic area, and were greater in infants and children. (1) The program also became infamous for its failure to request family permission before testing skeletons. (2)

Although Sr-90 was just one of the 100-plus chemicals in fallout, it quickly became the favorite for in-body testing, as its half life of 28.7 years makes it detectable for a long period after a bone or tooth is extracted from the body. But Sr-90 was also recognized as one of the most harmful components of the clouds. It was known to penetrate into the bone marrow, where red and white blood cells crucial to the immune response are formed. (3)

Sr-90 became a standard part of the American vocabulary during the Cold War. In the 1956 presidential campaign, Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson declared Sr-90 as:

“the most dreadful poison in the world. For only one tablespoon equally shared by all the members of the human race could produce a dangerous level of radioactivity in the bones of every individual.” (4)

One month after this statement, an article in Newsweek described the Sr-90 threat:

“the testing of hydrogen bombs may have already propelled enough strontium 90, the most pernicious aftermath of nuclear fission, into the stratosphere to doom countless of the world’s children to inescapable and incurable cancer.” (5)

With the AEC bone program largely a secret government venture, the need for a more public study of fallout in bodies became clear. In August 1958, biochemist Herman Kalckar proposed an international, long-term program measuring fallout in baby teeth. Kalckar noted that young children “take up radioactive strontium and caesium more intensely than adolescents and adults.” (6)

Citizens and Scientists Collaborate, Tooth Study Helps End Testing

Kalckar’s idea was an instant hit. The Greater St. Louis Citizens Committee for Nuclear Information, a combination of Washington University scientists and concerned local citizens, began a study in December 1958. Teeth donations were solicited by distributing forms to schools, libraries, churches, dentists, and dental clinics. (7) By the time the study ended over a decade later, over 300,000 teeth had been collected. Federal funds gave some support, but many volunteers handed out forms, collected information from parents, and distributed buttons to children stating “I Gave My Tooth to Science.”

Lab testing of baby teeth confirmed the fears of many, namely, the enormous buildup of fallout in baby teeth. The average Sr-90 level in baby teeth for a St. Louis child born in 1963 was about 50 times higher than that of their counterparts born in 1950. (8) The St. Louis tooth study entered the policy arena when Washington University’s Dr. Eric Reiss presented results to the U.S. Senate. Soon after, President John F. Kennedy signed the Partial Test Ban Treaty.

The Washington University tooth study was duplicated in Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Finland, Norway, the United Kingdom, and West Germany. All studies detected the same sharp increase in Sr-90 as bomb testing went on.

The St. Louis study also produced good news: five years after the Treaty went into effect, average Sr-90 in the jawbones of stillborn fetuses plunged about 50%. (8) Post-Treaty reductions were so dramatic that the U.S. government discontinued funding for the St. Louis tooth study in 1970, and studies of Sr-90 in bones of children (1971) and adults (1982), leaving the nation with no program measuring radioactivity in human bodies.

Baby Teeth Used to Address Cancer Risk from Bomb Tests

Talk of fallout causing cancer was common in the bomb test era. A Newsweek article covering the St. Louis tooth study asked “But what about the children who have done their growing while strontium-90 levels were high – are they liable to develop cancer?” (9) The St. Louis study addressed the buildup of fallout in human bodies, but not cancer risk. Government officials were in no hurry to look at the fallout-cancer link, so the topic went unexamined.

After decades of asserting fallout levels were too low to cause cancer, the government position changed after the Cold War ended. Federal studies estimated that fallout caused 49,000 Americans to develop thyroid cancer, with few fatalities (10), and about 15,000 Americans died of cancer from fallout. (11) Some believed these figures to be gross underestimates; a blue-ribbon European panel estimated worldwide cancer cases from fallout to be 123,200,000, half of them fatal. (12) But U.S. health officials, not eager to consider mass carnage, stopped studies of fallout in 2002.

The St. Louis tooth study, which had been largely forgotten for decades, experienced a rebirth in 2001. Washington University officials were startled to find hundreds of boxes of teeth not used in the study, stored in a remote ammunition bunker. Each tooth is contained in a small enveloped attached to a 3 x 5 card identifying the tooth and its donor. The school transferred the collection of about 85,000 teeth to the Radiation and Public Health Project (RPHP) research group, which was conducting its own study of Sr-90 in baby teeth near nuclear reactors.

RPHP officials recognized that these teeth could be used for a study of cancer risk of “Baby Boomers” now in their 40s and 50s. A sample of the 85,000 teeth was used to locate cancer survivors (through current addresses) and those who died of cancer (through official death records). In December 2010, the International Journal of Health Services published findings of the study, i.e. that “Boomers” born 1959-1961 who died of cancer had Sr-90 levels in their teeth more than twice (+122%) greater than those the same age who are alive and healthy. (13) While more research is needed to estimate casualties, it appears likely that the government figure of 15,000 U.S. cancer deaths from fallout is quite low.

Baby Teeth Play a Role in Public Policy

A long-ago baby tooth study of fallout can be greatly important in shaping current public policy, in several areas. First, it can help explain why 40% of Americans will develop cancer at some point in their life – many with no known risk factor. Second, it suggests that Americans are being harmed from the same substances produced in 104 nuclear power reactors around the country; the RPHP study of 5,000 baby teeth showed links between Sr-90 in baby teeth and child cancer risk near nuclear plants in New York and New Jersey. (14) Finally, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty is still not ratified by the U.S. Senate, and findings of higher cancer rates in “Baby Boomers” from bomb testing underlines the need to ban all further tests of nuclear weapons and their usage in warfare.


Joseph Mangano is Executive Director of the Radiation and Public Health Project.

1. Kulp JL, Eckelmann WR, Schulert AR. Strontium-90 in man. Science 1957;125(3241): 219-27.

2. Leary WE. In 1950s, U.S. Collected Human Tissue to Monitor Atomic Tests. New York Times, June 21, 1995.

3. Pecher C and Pecher J. Radio-calcium and radio-strontium metabolism in pregnant mice. In Proceedings of the Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine. New York: January-April 1941, Volume 46, p. 94.

4. Salisbury HE. Stevenson Calls for World Pact to Curb H-Bomb. New York Times, October 16, 1956.

5. Danger – Strontium 90. Newsweek, November 12, 1956, p. 88.

6. Kalckar HM. An international milk teeth radiation census. Nature 1958;4831:283-4.

7. Wyant WK. Strontium-90 in St. Louis: 50,000 Baby Teeth. The Nation, June 13, 1959, 535-7.

8. Rosenthal HL. Accumulation of environmental 90-Sr in teeth of children. Hanford Radiobiology Symposium, Richland WA, May 5-8, 1969, 163-71.

9. Moment of Tooth. Newsweek, April 25, 1960, p. 70.

10. National Research Council, Committee on Thyroid Screening. Exposure of the American People to Iodine-131 from the Nevada Bomb Tests. National Academy Press: Washington DC, 1999.

11. Eisler P. Fallout likely caused 15,000 deaths. USA Today, February 28, 2002, p. 1.

12. European Committee on Radiation Research. 2003 Recommendations of the ECRR: The Health Effects of Ionising Radiation Exposure for Radiation Protection Purposes. Green Audit: Aberystwyth, Wales, 2003.

13. Mangano JJ and Sherman JD. Elevated in vivo strontium-90 from nuclear weapons test fallout among cancer decedents: a case-control study using deciduous teeth. International Journal of Health Services 2011;41(1):137-58.

14. Mangano JJ. A short latency between radiation exposure from nuclear plants and cancer in young children. International Journal of Health Services 2006;36(1):113-35.

December 22, 2010 - Posted by | Militarism, Timeless or most popular, War Crimes

1 Comment

  1. It is strange that, as we discuss the issues of nuclear weapons testing, we leave out the names of some truly monstrous individuals responsible for the Cold war legacy. Almost every one of those was an American, the Soviets were just reacting to the aggressive intentions of the United States. In fact, Stalin was scared out of his wits and needed moral support of his sidekick and nominal subordinate and NKVD Chief Lavrenti Beria to stiffen his spine.
    Let me name some names and their ‘contributions’ to the doomsday scenario which still hangs over the humanity like the sword of Damocles.
    1. Edward Teller, the physicist most acclaimed as the ‘father’ of the hydrogen bomb. Even before the Soviets had exploded their first atom bomb in 1949(behind US and Britain), it was Teller who relentlessly prodded the leadership – both political and scientific – to pursue R&D related to thermonuclear ‘super-bomb’. Men like Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, knowing that the Soviets had no clue about even the theoretical possibility of thermonuclear weaponry, strenuously objected to any further weapons research on moral grounds. Oppenheimer, incessantly bad-mouthed by Teller, was ostracized and accused of having ‘communist sympathies’, was stripped of his security clearance and nearly faced arrest, trial and conviction on trumped up charges of helping the enemy.
    2. Gen Curtiss LeMay was the most diabolical of all war-mongers. His thirst for blood knew no limits. After having flattened the already supine Empire of Japan with two unnecessary nuclear bomb attacks, he commissioned research on the Soviets concerning their industrial infrastructure (very nearly destroyed by Hitler and unlikely to recover for 50 or more years) and decided that it would take 650 Hiroshima size bombs to ‘defeat’ an ally who had almost single-handedly vanquished the Nazi war machine (which explains the war-time and post-war Jewish sympathies for Communism) and won WWII for us. Lemay arrogantly demanded 650 bombs from Truman and kept badgering the Truman administration, with the support of hawkish Republicans in Congress, to speed up nuclear buildup and also R&D of the hydrogen bomb and to push for an ungodly fleet of jet fighters and long range bombers. He also maneuvered the Congress to create the ‘Strategic Air Command’ (The word ‘strategic’ in the modern sense was coined by LeMay) with himself as it chief. He was awarded almost dictatorial powers over SAC by US Congress and used it ruthlessly to intimidate and defy the elected presidents of this Democratic nation, flouting the explicit orders of his nominal civilian superiors in the government!
    Meanwhile, Stalin learned, from his spies in the US, about American plans to build a very large stockpile of atom bombs with the express stated purpose of defeating the Soviet Union. Stalin was aghast, in fact he refused to believe the reports for quite a while and had a few messengers of the bad news chastised!
    But the stream of reports was undeniable. He learned about the new doomsday weapon a thousand times more vile than the atom bomb and asked Beria to check with his scientists (already feverishly at work with the soviet Atom Bomb and having very hard time getting even basic theoretical scientific work under way) who, almost without exception, laughed at the concept. All, except Andrei Sakharov who immediately assembled an army of 1,500 of the most brilliant Soviet mathematicians to start work on the theoretical calculations needed for thermonuclear device (while the scientist at Los Alamos were waiting for Columbia University to perfect ENIAC, the first true analog computer!). The result was that not only was Stalin able to build up his own stockpile of the nuclear weapons but also beat Americans to the punch by testing the first true thermonuclear device 4 months before Americans did. He also started writing blank checks for his scientists who independently developed Jet fighters and long range bombers and pulled way ahead of the US in missile technology (no doubt with the help of captured German scientists, much as the US did).
    All of these were, of course, used by the red-baiting warmongers and cold-warriors in the US leadership like Richard Nixon, John Foster Dulles, Senators McCarthy and Knowland and US military leaders led by Lemay in the US official and unofficial leadership as the proof of Soviet’s aggressive intentions. Cold War was on in earnest!
    3. Harry S. Truman, the US President never heard of a war he did not like and if he did not immediately launch a war of world conquest, it was because by this time, Stalin had a credible – if not immediately measurable – nuclear weapons stockpile and the world’s most formidable conventional military. The sanity has prevailed – I believe, only temporarily – with the understanding of the value of ‘deterrence’ and the doctrine of ‘Mutual Assured Destruction’. With LeMay and his disciples kicking and screaming, America was forced to adopt the language of peaceful ‘co-existence’.
    If you watched on C-SPAN 2 the debate on ratification of START treaty (itself a document of dubious sincerity, if not an outright bogus form of deceitful diplomacy), you would have noticed that the Ghost of Gen. Curtis LeMay lives and his acolytes are very much alive in spirit and in control of US polity, in the US Senate and, undoubtedly, in the US House of Representatives too. Of the 71 who voted in favor of the treaty, I daresay, at least half did so with the assurance that the treaty is designed to lull Russians into a false sense of security and our leaders will undoubtedly find a way to secretly get around its provisions, in just the way that US circumvented the solemn assurances Roosevelt and Churchill gave Stalin at the Yalta and Tehran Conferences in the waning days of WWII. I wager that as soon as its utility is worn out, America will abrogate START in much the same way as George W. Bush arrogantly and unilaterally abrogated the ABM Treaty years before it was to have run out. You can count on Russian gullibility but the ‘inscrutable Chinese’ may be a much more difficult nut to crack. Stay tuned.


    Comment by Inayat Lalani | December 22, 2010

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