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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Baby Teeth Project

Air Date: Week of October 29, 1999

Commentator Suzanne Elston notes a new study that finds strontium-90 (STRON-tee-um), a carcinogenic by-product of nuclear reactions, is showing up in the teeth of children living near nuclear reactors. An earlier study, conducted during the Cold War which found strontium-90 in baby teeth, was attributed to nuclear test fallout.

Transcript

CURWOOD: During the Cold War, concern about the health effects from above-ground nuclear testing led to a study dubbed The Baby Teeth Project. The study found dangerous levels of a radioactive element called strontium-90 embedded in the baby teeth of thousands of children born after 1949, a result of nuclear test fallout. Nuclear testing was eventually banned, and the problem was thought to be solved. But as commentator Suzanne Elston says, a new study suggests history may be repeating itself.

ELSTON: I've always been a firm believer that if you imagine the worst thing that could happen, it probably never will. So over the years I've managed to make peace with the fact that I live in the shadow of a nuclear power plant, by worrying about it. And now I find out that some of my fears may be justified. A new study has measured the strontium-90 levels in the baby teeth of children living near nuclear reactors. The study is similar to one conducted 40 years ago that contributed to the banning of above-ground nuclear testing in the U. S. The strontium-90 levels found in this new study are at the same levels that President Kennedy deemed too dangerous in 1963. Strontium-90 is similar to calcium. It enters the bodies of pregnant women through their food and water, where some of it is transferred to the bones of their unborn children. Once there, it irradiates blood and bone cells and can eventually lead to leukemia and bone cancer. Strontium-90 didn't even exist before 1943. It's a byproduct of atomic bomb tests.

After the nuclear test ban it was predicted that strontium-90 levels in baby teeth would decrease. And they did for a while. But in the last 20 years they've been increasing. The reason? Strontium-90 is also a byproduct of nuclear reactors. It's one of the many radioactive substances that form in fuel bundles during a nuclear chain reaction. If the fuel bundle is breached somehow, either by physical damage or by overheating, the strontium-90 is released into the system. We are led to believe that it's contained within the nuclear power plant, but the evidence presented by this study indicates that this is not the case. What I find so troubling about all this is that we've already been here. Forty years ago we realized that what we were doing was harming our unborn children. And yet here we are, decades later, repeating the same mistakes. Nuclear power plants or weapons testing, it doesn't matter where the strontium-90 comes from. The end result is the same. Our children inherit so much from us: the color of our eyes, our personalities. Must they also inherit our mistakes?

CURWOOD: Commentator Suzanne Elston is a syndicated columnist living in Curtis, Ontario. She comes to us via the Great Lakes Radio Consortium.

 

 

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