Pinky Pie

Grape jelly, the tooth fairy, powdered milk, nuclear fallout, radiated feet & me

Posted on: October 26, 2009

A toothless young St. Louisian whose baby teeth went for science

A toothless young friend of mine whose baby teeth went to science in the late 1950s.

Just a half hour before I was to leave Thursday to give a talk about personal history at a university, I found myself at the intersection of person and history.

A friend from my school days in St. Louis posted an article on Facebook that linked baby boomers from our area with higher rates of cancer:

The article brought back powerful memories:

  • My parents boycotted the best grape jelly in a kid’s eyes because they thought it was founded by a family that started the John Birch Society, which continues to demonize people with a very broad anti-communism brush.  The black lists and McCarthyism were still very much alive in my parents’ minds that they didn’t want to support that company. Later, Welch jelly (think Flintstone glasses) returned to our table when it was confirmed the company and society founders shared the same last name but were not otherwise connected.
  • My parents were very nervous about radiation from atomic bomb tests in the 1950s and 1960s. So we had to drink powdered milk, which was pretty disgusting (almost to the cooked spinach level to me). Eventually, we were back to liquid milk, perhaps after the testing ended. We were not alone; across the country the discovery of high levels of radiation prompted powdered milk for the kiddies across the country and as efforts grew to ban the bomb.
  • This was also the era when the best shoe stores had x-ray machines to ensure that the shoes were were buying fit properly. This was considered my modern than an expert thumb coming down in the end of the shoe to determine where it had the mandatory “room to grow.” You can imagine how much radiation kids got on their feet playing with that machine before our parents told us to stop that! It is a wonder we still have our feet.
  • My dad turning down my pleas to build a backyard bomb shelter. A very well read man with only a semester of college because he needed to work to support his family, he knew of the dangers of atomic bombs and fallout very early on. There had been some 400 bombs tested in the atmosphere during the 1950s and 1960s. He rightfully worried about where that fallout would go and that it would lead to an all-out nuclear war.
    St. Post Dispatch photo of one set of the 85,000 remaining baby teeth to be studied.

    St. Post Dispatch photo of one set of the 85,000 remaining baby teeth to be studied.

    He also knew that no one would want to survive a nuclear attack in a bomb shelter – assuming you would make it in the shelter  – only to come up and discover a destroyed and contaminated world.

\ I learned from the article  that St. Louis area parents donated 320,000 baby teeth to study at Washington University in St. Louis. They were analyzed for their radiation contamination levels and sadly were found to be significantly higher in St. Louis than baby teeth in a comparable other city.

My friend remembered the tooth fairy donated her teeth to Washington University for the research.” She wrote, “My baby teeth were part of the original study that led to the test ban treaty. I was always proud to wear my “I gave my tooth to science” button. We owe thanks to Barry Commoner.” Another high school friend remembered donating theeth as well.

Why St. Louis when we were so far from Nevada? Prevailing winds moved that fallout to us, apparently making us the hardest hit large city in the country even though we were far from the actual bomb tests. Incidentally, I read the atomic tests were delayed if the winds were blowing west instead of east.

As a St. Louis Post Dispatch article noted in 2008, “The study concluded that children were absorbing radioactive fallout from atomic bomb tests, through the consumption of milk from cows that ate contaminated grass. The findings contributed to a ban on aboveground testing of atomic bombs in 1963. The baby teeth were tested for strontium-90, tiny metal particles in fallout that enter the body by eating and drinking and attach to bone and teeth.”

The children hardest hit with radiation, according to the St. Louis Baby Tooth Survey, were born in 1960 – I was born in 1952 – but the risk grew each year from 1950, when my brother was born (relax Andy).

And now further research is being done because 85,000 of the teeth were discovered in 2001 in an old ammunition bunker (ironic considering the anti-nukes philosophy of the researchers) in the Tyson Research Center at Washington University. With no money to do further research, the university turned the teeth over to the Radiation and Public Health Project in New York City. The RPHP has looked at radiation levels in other cities in its efforts to control the spread of nuclear weapons. .

With limited resources to do the research, the Radiation and Public Health Project is trying to find the donors – men first because they are easier to find – to see if they have had any health problems. Apparently they are centering on those born from 1959 to 1961 who were bottle fed during the era of greatest exposure. Cow’s milk was the path to getting the strontium-90 into the teeth. So far, they have found the cancer rate to be twice in adults whose baby teeth had high levels of radiation compared with those with normal levels.

I’m assuming my parents sent in my teeth as my dad spoke so highly of the primarily researcher, environmentalist Barry Commoner, and was very concerned about radiation – so much so to make us suffer with the powdered milk. My dad was a worrier just likee me.

The Radiation and Public Health Project is calling its research the Tooth Fairy Project, which I find unsettling at best.

I have listed my name and date of birth with the project in case they find my teeth among the 85,000, which I’m told will take a long time to determine. And my teeth may have been among the balance of the 300,000 that were ground up years ago. I may never know.

Some have criticized the project for doing “junk science” because it wants to show the damage of nuclear   bomb testing. Others ask, who isn’t against nukes? And they disagree that about the quality of the work of the Radiation and Public Health Project.

And what does this potential increased risk of cancer from growing up in St. Louis have to do with me? It’s similar in some ways to the possibility that my breast cancer may be related to being of Ashkenazi (eastern European) Jewish descent.  I don’t know if either or both caused by breast cancer, but it is fascinating.

If I am hit twice by both risks, then my early blog entry, “I stand with Tevye,” remains significant. Tevye, the father in Fiddler on the Roof, noted Jews were supposed to be “the chosen people.” He then asked God, “Just for once can’t you choose someone else?” I so agree.

Of course, it doesn’t really matter in the long run whether my cancer was related to my ethnicity or geographic location on the planet, except for its potential impact on the health of my children. If any.

My cancer is my cancer or, hopefully, used to be my cancer.

And as far as those students with whom I had that conversation about personal history, I hope this example and others during the conversation in that class  allowed them to get it – that we are all living at the intersection of personal  and history. Preserving personal history is fun and powerful stuff. Even more important, it gives you insight into who you are.


7 Responses to "Grape jelly, the tooth fairy, powdered milk, nuclear fallout, radiated feet & me"

Fascinating. I wonder what city west of the site they were trying to protect.

Let it be “used to be”!

I continue to find this blog MOST interesting. Fortunately I didn’t have to drink powdered milk but I do remember the “radiated feet”. Personal histories ARE fascinating–thanks for sharing yours like this! Makes me wonder what I could dredge up if I focused on it long enough! 🙂 Thinking of you!

I heard recently that we are close to being able to grow back our own teeth if our mothers kept our baby teeth. I am not sure how this would work, but as a patient facing more crowns and a bridge, I would love to grow new teeth.

The Tooth Fairy Project may be in trouble if people start to demand their teeth back!

I just always thought the Furies had put a curse on St. Louis…and I still think so…

The article posted by your friend triggered your memories and your blog post triggered mine. My family lived in Spokane, Washington at the time of the bomb tests and Cold War. Despite my pleadings, Dad refused to build a backyard bomb shelter because, as he put it, “our neighbors will just kill us for it. I was also motivated to look up radiation contamination in my community because Spokane is just 130 miles from Hanford, Washington were plutonium for the A and H bombs was produced. Inspired by you, I’m going to blog about it myself in greater detail and link to your blog. I hope you are doing well, Sue. You were missed at the APH conference.

[…] feature of childhood summers. I recently had occasion to remember it, thanks to Susan Hessel and her blog, Pinky Pie. In this blog, she shares her breast cancer journey, as befits the personal historian, writer, and […]

[…] Radiation was a big fear in the 1950s and 1960s, a reason that my dad made us drink awful and I mean awful powdered milk. And as I’ve written before, with St. Louis the ground zero for how atomic bomb radiation flowed, there was a big study to see how badly we kids were affected by these rays through our baby teeth. I wrote about this study in this blog earlier:… […]

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