The price of admission to the “baby tooth auction” at East Hampton’s Vered Gallery last Friday was $50, or roughly the cost of collecting one baby tooth and having it tested for the presence of the radioactive isotope strontium 90. Given the crowd, mostly prosperous-looking women of a certain age, it didn’t seem unrealistic when the hosts asked each guest for the $1600 it costs to test an entire mouthful of teeth.
For most scientists, getting money for research involves angling for grants from the National Cancer Institute, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the like. But, for the Tooth Fairy Project, a tooth-by-tooth study of the levels of radiation around Long Island (strontium 90 is a nuclear by-product that tends to lodge in growing teeth), fundraising has to be creative.
That’s not just because the government is unlikely to support a project headed by epidemiologist Jay Gould, consultant-turned-gadfly to the Environmental Protection Agency. After what he describes as his “conversion”— a process that involved reading Rachel Carson’s environmental classic Silent Spring and working on a class-action lawsuit over the near meltdown at Three Mile
Island— 84-year-old Gould says he doesn’t even want federal money to pay for his study on the effects of nuclear reactors. “We don’t solicit government funding,” says an indignant Gould. “They’re the ones that are behind this problem.”
As Gould sees it, low-level radiation is dangerous to people living as much as 100 miles from nuclear reactors. So residents of both New York City and Suffolk County could be affected by reactors at Long Island’s Brookhaven National Laboratory, Connecticut’s Millstone nuclear power plants, and the Oyster Creek
nuclear power plant in New Jersey.
Gould and the mostly retired scientists with whom he collaborates find themselves at odds with the mainstream position on radiation. They’ve been accused of “manipulation of statistics,” (that from a spokesman for Northeastern Utilities, which runs the Millstone plant), “junk science” (Otto Rabe, chairman of the Physics and Health Society), and worse. For his part, Gould thinks the government, members of the nuclear industry, and even other scientists are threatened by his work: “They’re terrified of what we’re doing.”
Luckily— sort of— for the Tooth Fairy Project, the summer homes of the rich and famous are ground zero for this particular scientific inquiry, making the matter of government funding almost moot. Poverty often marks environmental victims— “It’s usually the poor blacks or the poor in Appalachia,” as one Hamptonite put it. But this time the threat is being felt by residents of Long Island’s exalted East End, including Alec Baldwin, who has personally penned a plea asking 15,000 families to send in baby teeth for testing, and Christie Brinkley, who hosted a Tooth Fairy fundraiser a few weeks back.
The fear that radiation is affecting local health has also spurred concert promoter Ron Delsner and Wall Street broker David Friedson to come up with $100,000 for the next phase of the project. That’s when researchers plan to map the results of the tooth tests by zip code to see whether radiation levels match up with what they believe are clusters of breast, prostate, and a rare form of childhood cancer.
The first wave of concern about radiation was quelled by President Kennedy’s ban on aboveground nuclear weapons testing in 1963 (motivation for the ban was provided by a similar tooth study done in St. Louis). The test ban did result in lower radiation levels, and the government— which had itself tracked strontium 90 levels— stopped doing so in 1982. Since then, Gould believes radiation exposure has begun to increase again.
Based on analysis of their first 300 baby teeth, “the levels look as though they’ve been taken during the [nuclear weapons] testing years,” says Gould. “It just freaked us out when we got the results.”
Being freaked out isn’t enough, of course. Gould and colleagues need hard evidence to clinch their case— and defend them against charges of paranoia. So the project is continuing to gather teeth, hoping to collect as many as 2000 from the New York area by the end of the year, as well as some from people living near reactors in central New Jersey and Miami, Florida. After that, the project may start collecting teeth from places near reactors in Chicago, Sacramento, and Boston, and may then begin to check on the health of people whose teeth had particularly high levels of strontium 90.
At that point, which could be years away, Gould expects to have unequivocally shown the danger of environmental radiation. The evidence will be so clear, he predicts, that the government will have no choice but to take over the strontium 90 research themselves. “They’d have to,” says Gould, savoring the thought of vindication. “It would be embarrassing not to.”