Tooth Fairies Take Notice: Scientists Are Moving in On Your Turf

The Tooth Fairy had better take out a small loan. The price for baby teeth is about to skyrocket. Indeed, our children’s pearly whites aren’t just for placing under pillows anymore. Scientists are now using baby teeth to identify and measure environmental toxin and chemical exposure. That’s right, those sweet little propitiations to the Tooth Fairy, for which we’d receive a dollar or two, now have a whole new value.

Yes, I know that sounds a little far-fetched, but it seems that human teeth have something in common with trees! We all know that trees form rings annually, and those rings can tell scientists a lot about history of the tree’s growth, what the weather conditions were, if the tree experienced a lightning strike or wild fire. It turns out that baby teeth do essentially the same thing, but on a daily basis, offering researchers a unique “black box” that can reveal everything the developing fetus has been exposed to and when that exposure occurred—up to the moment a tooth falls out.

An emerging field of study focuses on the exposome, or the sum of all the exposures a person experiences in a lifetime. Being able to access information through the analysis of baby teeth from the earliest form of development—teeth start to form during the second trimester—can help answer questions about how environmental factors affect health throughout our lives.

For example, researchers from the School of Medicine at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio are asking parents to donate their children’s baby teeth for their “Autism Tooth Fairy Study,” comparing the teeth of children with and without autism. Since we believe autism occurs from a combination of genetic predispositions and exposure to toxic chemicals, this study hopes to discover which specific toxic chemicals exposures are most likely to influence the development of autism.

In an effort to track how exposure to the toxic dust clouds from 9/11 affected children’s development, doctors at New York’s Mount Sinai hospital are hoping to analyze baby teeth from children who lived near Ground Zero, as well as babies born shortly after 9/11. While studies have been done on firefighters and others working at the World Trade Center site that proved connections between their exposure and subsequent rates of cancer and other illnesses, no such study has been conducted on small children.

What have baby teeth told us so far? It’s an ugly story: Toxins such as lead, pesticides, plastics, and a myriad of chemicals, can be found in the outer rings of the tooth, which means they were present very early in the pregnancy. Toxins also come from the mother: stem cells are loaded with maternal toxins.

Yes, these poisons in our environment are pervasive and hard to avoid. But exposure to babies and small children while they are developing so rapidly is much more harmful than to adults. The earliest exposures can have significant effects and they can be linked to a number of diseases. Sadly, there’s really no fetal detox system. The liver is too busy making protein to detox effectively until a child is six months old. That’s why toxins are so dangerous to babies.

The lesson to be learned from these studies is that they show us the toxins we are all being exposed to, with the effect magnified for babies. The old adage “you are what you eat,” has double implications for pregnant women and those hoping to conceive: your baby’s future health quite literally depends on you. You need to be vigilant about what’s going into your body through the food you eat, water you drink, and the air you breathe.

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