When I was a little kid growing up in the suburbs of St. Louis, I’d get one of these buttons whenever I lost a baby tooth. The tooth would go in a little plastic box with a clear top and a snap clasp, and in exchange, my mom would give me a button, which, as I recall, fastened with a bendy metal tab, rather than a pin.
As I got older, my mom explained that scientists were collecting the teeth to measure the amount of Strontium 90, an element in radioactive fallout, in them. It was just another way—along with duck and cover drills and fallout shelter signs—that the vague but terrifying specter of nuclear armageddon was woven into the routine normalcy of our lives.
And I assumed little kids all over the country were sending in their baby teeth in plastic boxes in exchange for the pins with a picture of the mutant toothless kid on it.
But no. Turns out the effort to study kids’ teeth was spearheaded by a physician in St. Louis, Dr. Louise Reiss, and most of the teeth were collected near us. I know all this because Dr. Reiss recently died and her obituary ran in the Times today.
Turns out the 320,000 baby teeth collected (that’s ALL of my baby teeth, plus the teeth of 9,999 other kids) were instrumental in bringing a worldwide halt to atmospheric nuclear testing. According to the Times, “the study ultimately found that children born in St. Louis in 1963 had 50 times as much strontium 90 in their teeth as children born in 1950 — before most of the atomic tests.”
I hadn’t thought of the baby teeth in the little plastic boxes and the bendy metal badges for years and years. It’s amazing to learn after all this time that my little toofers helped make a difference, thanks to the vision and dedication of Dr. Reiss.