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Harvard Researchers Obtain 100,000 Baby Teeth to Investigate Effects of Environment on Long-Term Health

Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health have obtained a sample of over 100,000 baby teeth that they plan to use to determine indicators of individuals' long-term health.
Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health have obtained a sample of over 100,000 baby teeth that they plan to use to determine indicators of individuals' long-term health. By Megan M. Ross
By Yuen Ting Chow and Jorge O. Guerra, Contributing Writers

Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health have obtained a sample of over 100,000 baby teeth that they plan to use to determine indicators of individuals’ long-term health.

The teeth are left over from the “Baby Tooth Survey,” a study conducted in St. Louis in the 1960s to measure the amount of strontium 90, a radioactive element not found in nature, in children. Schoolchildren were encouraged to send in their teeth to the researchers to receive a collectible button.

The teeth were donated to the Harvard researchers by Joseph J. Mangano, the executive director of the Radiation and Public Health Project, a non-profit organization that investigates and communicates effects of low-level nuclear fallout on public health.

The original study found significant strontium 90 in many of the teeth samples collected, a result of the above-ground nuclear test conducted in the United States at the time. The findings ultimately led President John F. Kennedy ’40 to sign a treaty banning all types of above-ground nuclear tests.

Marc G. Weisskopf, a professor of environmental epidemiology and physiology at the School of Public Health, said he hopes to use the teeth to explore the impact of childhood environmental factors on the body as well as on long-term health.

Weisskopf and his team are trying to track down the original donors, who are now in their 60s and 70s. Weisskopf said that the teeth are able to give a “snapshot” of the participants’ childhood health. They plan to interview subjects about their current health.

Weisskopf said the teeth have been stored “literally just in shoe boxes in somebody’s garage,” so the first step for researchers was to catalogue all of the teeth.

Kaleigh A. McAlaine, a HSPH research assistant who worked on developing the survey for participants, said that the questions include those asked on established evaluations to ensure “validated results.”

She said that the survey takes about 30 minutes to complete and will be followed by an online cognitive test.

“The survey is really to get a background on lifetime health, so it's got a lot of questions in there. We're looking at people's health over their entire lifetime, and not just their physical health, but their mental health, their social health, their economic health,” McAlaine said.

Weisskopf added that his team is also trying to get extra samples, including blood and toenails samples, from a subset of participants, which could provide more information on their current health.

The team has been searching voter rolls to identify current mailing addresses and email addresses. They have already conducted a small pilot, the outreach for which garnered a “promising” 30 percent participation rate.

“That helped us to generate more funds, to say, ‘We can do this and we want to now scale up to the full cohort,’” Weisskopf said. “We have great hope. But we'll see the reality in the next few months.”

McAlaine said that the results of the study could help provide a better understanding of how the environment of a child impacts their health decades later.

“[The original study] was used by Kennedy to enact the above-ground nuclear test ban treaty. So it had huge ramifications,” McAlaine said. “And I think this could too if we get really positive results.”

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