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50,000 Baby Teeth

WK Wyant, Jr., The Nation (June 13, 1959): 535-37

Ordinarily, a group that called itself the Greater St. Louis Citizens Committee for Nuclear Information would not be expected to last for any great period of time. Mortality among earnest and well-meaning organizations has been as great here as elsewhere, and the waters of the Mississippi have rolled over many such. Yet the committee now is striding vigorously into its

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second year. It has turned out to be an unusually happy union of scientific knowledge and civic leadership. Lay members are not afraid of Ph.D.s and M.D.s, the good doctors are neither fearful nor contemptuous of the laymen, and both doctors and laymen are unafraid of the United States Government.

At the outset, CNI - as the committee is called locally - decided it would not be an "action" group - that is to say, it would take no position for or against testing of nuclear weapons, even though the sentiment of the organizing spirits was clearly and outspokenly against. The view prevailed that what really was needed was information. It was felt that too many people - the politicians, the military and the oracles speaking "ex cathedra" from the Atomic Energy Commission - were taking decisive attitudes on the basis of indecisive information, or none.

This stand, useful in itself, also served the practical purpose of broadening the base of support, with the consequence that the CNI leadership now reflects a wide spectrum of opinion.

But while persisting in its "non-action" policy, the committee during its first year waged such a valiant fight on the information front that strontium-90 is now a household word in St. Louis. On the average of every other day, a member of the speakers' stable makes a talk on the subject. The CNI's monthly bulletin's circulation has jumped from 500 to 2,500. And the committee's drive to collect 50,000 baby teeth, to be analyzed for strontium-90, got headlines throughout the world press.

A few months ago, CNI's first anniversary meeting took place at the Union Avenue Christian Church, where the organization had been founded. Present was a cross-section of the medical and scientific elite of the city, along with lawyers, ministers and other civic leaders. Morale was high. There was evident a fine rapport, an atmosphere of comradeship and understanding, between scientists and laymen, One reason for this was that much had been accomplished with little.

Dr. Alfred S. Schwartz, assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at Washington University School of Medicine, the committee's vice president and treasurer, reported $5,077 had been spent during the year, leaving a balance of $469. Membership was more than 500. Tribute was paid to the women volunteer workers, many of them the wives of physicians and scientists.

Specifically, what had the committee done in its first year? There was a good deal besides the fact that it now had an office on the second floor of an old, converted red-brick house on West Pine Boulevard, with a number in the telephone book, a constantly ringing telephone, and a dedicated staff secretary to answer phone and mail - Mrs. Edward C. Roberts, who started as a part-time paid worker and now is a full-time volunteer.

1. A Speaker's Bureau, consisting of seventeen men and three women, has been organized to offer scientists as speakers to organizations in the St. Louis area. The speakers are all either M.D.s or Ph.D.s, capable of dealing with technical aspects of the fallout controversy. Since last October, some seventy church, parent, fraternal and business groups have heard addresses. Three organizers of the committee - Barry Commoner, professor of botany at Washington University, Dr. Walter C. Bauer, instructor in surgical pathology at the university's School of Medicine, and John M. Fowler, Washington University physicist - have made the knife-and-fork circuit a way of life. Fowler estimated they spend about a third of their time at it.

2. Nuclear Information, CNI's monthly publication, was started last fall to report new scientific facts in lay language. The March issue was entitled "Strontium-90 and Common Foods." It served to point out that the public had heard much about radioactivity in milk, but little about radioactivity in other foods. An article told of the three-year survey of wheat samples from Minnesota and the Dakotas.

3. CNI has sponsored two series of five seminars each on radiation for the scientific and medical community, and three public meetings at which qualified people discussed the consequences of radiation and fallout.

4. At the request of the St. Louis Dairy Council, CNI scientists last January issued a statement discussing the potential hazard from strontium-90 in milk (the local milk supply has been showing the highest strontium-90 concentration of 10 cities surveyed monthly by the United States Public Health Service - and nobody knows why). The statement said, in effect, that the harm that might result to children from milk containing radioactive substances could not yet be assayed with certainty. It emphasized that milk, as an essential food, must not be eliminated from the diet, and called for research on ways to lower its strontium-90 content.

5. The Baby Tooth Survey was started last December as a ten-year scientific project. Directed by Dr. Louise Reiss, an internist, the campaign has the cooperation of the School of Dentistry at both Washington and St. Louis universities. It has also served as an excellent device for calling attention to the more dreadful implications of nuclear fallout.

There was deep concern in St. Louis about nuclear-weapons testing for several years before CNI was organized. One of Washington University's most widely known scientists, former Chancellor Arthur H. Compton, Nobel Prize-winner and key figure in developing the A-bomb in World War II, has maintained a friendly attitude toward government atomic policies. But younger men in the physics department, headed by Edward U. Condon, former U.S. Bureau of Standards, chief, were openly hostile. In the spring of 1957, Linus C. Pauling of the California Institute of Technology, also a Nobel Prize-winner, attacked atom bomb testing in an eloquent address before Washington University's faculty and student body, warning of the price that might have to be paid by generations yet unborn. Later, in Condon's office, Pauling drew up a petition that called for immediate action to halt testing by international agreement.

Condon, Commoner and three other faculty members were among the twenty-seven signers of this petition; by the time Pauling presented it to the U.N. Secretary-General in January, 1958, more than 9,000 scientists from forty-three nations had subscribed. The scientific community at St. Louis University, a Catholic institution, had a share in the effort.

The formation of CNI followed several years of public needling of the AEC by Fowler, Commoner, Dr. Bauer, T. Alexander Pond of Washington University's physics department, and others. Some were horrified at the attacks made on Adlai Stevenson when he tried to debate the fallout question in the 1956 Presidential campaign.

St. Louis women, an enlightened and militant breed, got into the conflict early. A pioneer group calling itself "Eves Against Atoms," headed by Mrs. Thomas B. Sherman, wife of a Post-Dispatch editor, took a stand against testing. However, the CNI traces its origin directly to a meeting which took place in March of last year at the apartment of Mrs. George Gellhorn, a tireless and effective worker for civic causes in city, state and nation for sixty years. Now eighty, a widow since 1936 and the mother of writer Martha Gellhorn, Mrs. Gellhorn is a woman possessed of beauty, charm and sharp political savvy. Her assistance in any campaign to get something done in St. Louis is the rough equivalent of six Marine battalions.

From the start, CNI has had strong moral and religious overtones, sharp-ened by a kind of cheerful "let's look at the facts" iconoclasm. Like Mrs. Gellhorn, the Commoners - Barry and his wife, Gloria, committee vice president - are members of the St. Louis Ethical Society. So is Alexander S. Langsdorf, dean emeritus of Washington University's School of Engineering and CNI president. Fowler and Dr. Bauer and Quakers. At the initial meeting in the Gellhorn apartment, in addition to Commoner and Fowler, was the Rev. Ralph C. Abele, then head of the Metropolitan Church Federation. They decided to form a permanent body.

The next step was a meeting of about thirty people which took place several weeks later at the home of Mrs. Ernest W. Stix, another civic leader. Attending were university people, members of social-action groups, priests, ministers, housewives. The sequel was the founders' meeting, April 21, 1958.

While not all the CNI prime movers took a position against testing, the major figures did; and it is quite apparent that the group as a whole is motivated by deep misgivings as to the biological and moral implications of the weapons race. Nevertheless, the decision was to take no official stand and to concentrate instead on information.

Scientists with CNI have served as a Greek chorus to amplify, comment on, question, explain and criticize the thunderous pronunciamentos of the protagonists in Washington. Each new gobbet of official information is analyzed and put into context. Research papers are seized on, dissected and translated into lay language. The press is kept alerted to its duty. Any inaccuracies, omissions or glossings-over in official statements are promptly challenged.

The Baby Tooth Survey has given the organization an objective that should hold it together for some time. The idea was suggested last summer by Dr. Schwartz, who cited an article in the British scientific publication Nature written by Dr. Herman M. Kalckar, biochemist at Johns Hopkins University. CNI became the first group anywhere, apparently to initiate a large collection of "milk" teeth to be analyzed for radioactivity.

It was characteristic of the committee that it planned the project carefully. Before any announcement was made, its scope and purpose had the approval of the deans of both the local schools of dentistry; and Dr. John T. Bird, assistant dean of Washington University's school had agreed to head a group of dentists to examine and classify the teeth. Dr. E. S. Khalifah, editor of the journal of the Missouri State Dental Association, gave his enthusiastic support. With the help of Martin Quigley, a public-relations adviser who is on the CNI board, the announcement, when it came, was deliberately designed to softpedal the "human interest" angle of the story and to stress sober scientific objectives. It said in part:

The importance of an immediate collection of deciduous, or baby, teeth lies in the fact that teeth now being shed by children represent an irreplaceable source of scientific information about the absorption of strontium-90 in the human body. Beginning about ten years ago, strontium-90 from nuclear-test fallout began to reach the earth and to contaminate human food.

Deciduous teeth now being shed were formed from the minerals present in food eaten by mothers and infants during the period 1948 to 1953 - the first few years of the fallout era - and therefore represent invaluable baseline information with which analysis of later teeth and bones can be compared. Unless a collection of deciduous teeth is started immediately, scientists will lose the chance to learn how much strontium-90 human beings absorbed during the first years of the atomic age.

Strontium-90 present in food accumulates in bones and teeth; milk is the main food source of strontium-90. In sufficient amounts the radiation from strontium-90 may cause harmful effects, including bone tumors and other forms of cancer. . . .

The reaction to the announcement was instantaneous and world-wide: There were letters from New York, Hawaii, Calcutta, California, Spain. Some mail from afar included teeth, although the committee wants specimens only from the St. Louis area.

Dr. Louise Reiss and her assistants have had extraordinary success in getting local schools - public, private and parochial - to help in the teeth collecting. Some 250,000 forms have been distributed to reach all lower-grade students. The Council of Catholic Women, the public libraries, the dental societies and city dental clinics have been of great assistance. At present, baby teeth are reaching the little office on West Pine Boulevard at the rate of about fifty a day. The stockpile is still short of 10,000, although the estimated annual "fallout" of baby teeth in the St. Louis area is half-a-million. When enough have been accumulated, they will be classified, ground up and analyzed at the Washington University School of Dentistry. Mothers who request an individual report on their children's teeth are doomed to disappointment.

Summing up the first year, the CNI, adopting a "conservative" approach, has set a pattern already being followed by other communities. What official bodies will not do for them, citizens are seeking to do for themselves.