baby teeth

Baby Teeth Provide Clues to Effects of Nuclear Fallout

October 23, 2009 02:20 PM
by Colleen Brondou
Using teeth collected from donors in the St. Louis-area in the 1960s, a new study has uncovered a link between strontium-90 levels and cancer, calling attention to other environmental carcinogens.

Radiation Exposure Revealed in Teeth

In the 1960s, Washington University conducted the St. Louis Tooth Survey, a study looking at the effect of nuclear fallout on children born in the St. Louis-area. Scientists gathered teeth from more than 300,000 kids and analyzed a majority of the teeth for strontium-90, a radioactive isotope caused by bomb blasts. 

The study found that children born in 1964 “had about 50 times more strontium-90 in their baby teeth than those born in 1950, before the start of atomic testing in Nevada,” Kim McGuire writes for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The scientists theorized that children were exposed to the strontium by drinking milk produced by goats and cows that had eaten grass contaminated by the fallout. “Our work showed that prevailing winds carried radiation to our area and ultimately ended up in kids’ teeth,” Dr. John E. Gilster, a contributor to the original study, told McGuire.

In 2001, 85,000 teeth that were donated to the study were unearthed from a bunker at Washington University and given to the Radiation and Public Health Project, a research group examining the links between nuclear contamination and disease. The new study supports many of the same findings of the Washington University study.

McGuire writes that the new study found that “[o]f the healthy donors, levels of strontium-90 were insignificant … But the donors who died of cancer had about 122 percent more of the isotope in their teeth than the healthy donors.”

Opinion & Analysis: Cancers and the environment

According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), environmental factors “probably cause three quarters of all cancer cases in the US.

”It’s important to note that cancer researchers define “environment” as “everything outside the body that enters and interacts with it,” the National Cancer Institute explains. In addition to the obvious environmental culprits, such as sunshine, radiation, metals and chemicals, other environmental factors include lifestyle choices, such as diet, alcohol consumption, smoking and exercise.

The ACS explains that a poor diet, lack of exercise and tobacco use are more likely to increase your cancer risk than pollutants found in water, food sources and the air. Still, when people “have been exposed to high levels of ionizing radiation, certain chemicals, metals, and other substances,” their cancer risk has increased significantly.

In a 2005 New York Times article, however, Dr. Michael Gallo, who was diagnosed with B cell lymphoma in 2003, denied that the dioxin he worked with the in the lab for 30 years was the cause of his cancer. According to Gina Kolata, writing for The Times, the Environmental Protection Agency considers dioxin to be a likely human carcinogen, and in high doses, it may increase the risk for lymphoma. But Gallo measured his own dioxin levels and found them to be extremely low.

Gallo and other cancer researchers believe that the relationship between the environment and cancer is far more complex. Factors such as diet, exposure to infectious diseases and genetics all play a part. “There is a gene and environment interaction, and the environment is much broader than just chemicals,” he said. “The challenge is to figure out what is the role of the gene and how does the lifestyle and environment overlay that gene.”

Related Topic: Surroundings, country of origin affect cancer rates

A study of immigrants that had moved to Florida from Cuba, Mexico and Puerto Rico found that their rate of cancer was 40 percent higher than those that remained in their country of origin. The finding supports research conducted by the World Health Organization, which discovered that industrialized nations have higher rates of cancer.

Reference: Cancer Web guide

Use the Web Guide to Cancer to find sites with reliable information on the different types of cancer, cancer treatments, hospitals that treat cancer, online cancer support groups and more.

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