By Kristen J. Gough

The Tooth Fairy Reports to Westchester County Legislature


Margo Schepart was in her backyard when she heard the sirens go off. At the time, Schepart lived just five miles from the Indian Point nuclear power plant. The sirens were triggered accidentally, but the experience made her understand the dangers of having a radioactive neighbor, and she soon became involved in the Tooth Fairy Project. Schepart appeared as the Tooth Fairy at local events, passing out collection envelopes to gather baby teeth from Westchester County residents. These teeth became part of a larger study, dubbed the Tooth Fairy Project, conducted by the Radiation and Public Health Project (RPHP), and funded by the county in November 2001. Recently, the Westchester County legislature had its first glimpse of the project’s findings and the results were sobering. One hundred and forty three baby teeth were collected from Westchester, 50 from nearby Rockland, and 33 from Putnam. These teeth were then tested for Strontium (Sr)-90, a radioactive element. Sr-90 is especially dangerous in children because its structures so closely resemble that of calcium that the body deposits it into teeth and bones. Once there, it can mutate healthy cells, weakening children’s immature immune systems, and potentially causing cancer. Between 1958 and 1970, a similar project in St. Louis collected and tested over 300,000 baby teeth for Sr-90. The project found children born in 1964 had approximately 50 times greater concentrations of Sr-90 than children born in 1950. After atmospheric atomic bomb testing was banned in 1963, in-body levels of Sr-90 in children declined dramatically. According to Joseph Mangano, national coordinator of the RPHP, Sr-90 levels in Westchester County’s children are rising. From 1987-89 until 1994-96, the average level of Sr-90 found in baby teeth nationwide increased by 50 percent, while in Westchester the level rose by 79 percent. Of the three counties considered in the study, Westchester topped Rockland and Putnam for the highest concentration of Sr-90, higher even than those of the New York metropolitan area. The trends in rising Sr-90 levels, says Mangano, are similar to that of rising childhood cancer rates. "We want the public to understand that nuclear reactors emit a low level of radiation that is ongoing into the air, the water, and our food," Mangano explains. Of the 72 nuclear power plants in the United States, Indian Point emitted the fifth highest amount of airborne radioactivity. While the government maintains strict standards and controls on the amount of radiation a power plant can emit, Mangano believes the Tooth Fairy Project shows that the levels of radioactive elements found in children are steadily increasing. The next step in the project is to collect teeth from children with cancer to look at the Sr-90 levels. The project has not been without criticism. Dr. Joshua Lipsman, Westchester County Commissioner of Health, condemns the project “in the strongest terms." Dr. Lipsman supports shutting down Indian Point over issues concerning nuclear waste storage, but believes the Tooth Fairy Project creates unwarranted fear. "The Westchester County Department of Health monitors the air for radiation 24 hours a day," says Dr. Lipsman. In addition to the Health Department’s weekly samples of Hudson River water to test for radiation, the owners of Indian Point maintain 16 radiation monitors on the perimeter of the plant, he explains. If any radiation is detected, they are required to report it. But Mangano argues that "officials don’t want to know the truth," and points out that federal regulators set permissible levels of radiation without adequately monitoring reactors to ensure that they comply. And even at those levels, he continues, there have been limited studies of health risks. New York State Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, D-Greenburgh, agrees. He has been spearheading efforts to close Indian Point. "For years the American people have been told untruths about radiation in terms of health and public safety," he states. Nevertheless, Dr. Lipsman believes the project’s findings are faulty. "It’s flawed on many levels,” he says. “The most basic is that the nuclear power plant is not leaking radiation." Dr. Lipsman contends that the RPHP has a "predetermined anti-nuclear agenda to close reactors at all costs, even if it costs the truth." Ironically, he points out, the RPHP and the Department of Health appear to share the same goal, yet "we cannot support compromising the truth." While having a nuclear neighbor raises many questions, the Tooth Fairy offers some sage advice. "It’s not easy to deal with unpleasant things," says Schepart, but people who get involved are doing good things for themselves and the world around them. I would suggest to anyone that they need to learn more about the issues." The findings of the expanded Tooth Fairy Project, which include 3,500 teeth from around the country, will be published in the January 2004 issue of The Science of the Total Environment. To read more about the project, visit the RPHP website at