Tooth fairy project may reveal effect of uranium

March 18, 2008 Edition 4

Shaun Smillie

Fifty tons of uranium seep into the rivers and spruits of the West Rand every year and simply disappear.

Long-term exposure to uranium, just one of a host of heavy metals found in the river systems of the Wonderfontein Spruit, can lead to kidney failure and even cancer.

But for a long time no one has known what the effects of uranium have had on the people living in the area.

Local doctors have spoken of higher-than-usual cancer rates but there has never been any hard scientific proof.

However, this could all soon change with the help of a bunch of tooth fairies.

The tooth fairies will be the thousands of mothers scientists are banking on to hand in their children’s milk teeth.

Dr Anthony Turton, a researcher at the CSIR, plans to start a study that will once and for all tell scientists what effect radiation and heavy metals is having on the population in the Wonderfontein Spruit catchment area. The metals are released by mines in the area.

The theory is simple. Mothers will hand in their children’s milk teeth, scientists will then analyse each tooth, looking for elevated radiation levels and the presence of several heavy metals.

“Milk teeth represent what has happened in a child’s life over a period of seven years,” said Turton.

Children, he explained, are more likely to accumulate heavy metal and radiation in their teeth because of the body’s drive to acquire calcium for bone growth.

But while in theory the project is simple, putting it into practice is likely to be far harder.

Besides the cost of an estimated R15-million, Turton is expecting cultural issues to come to the fore.

“There are cultural complexities. For example in some cultures a tooth is seen as a body part that can be used against you in muti. That is why anthropologists are going to be part of the study,” explained Turton.

NGOs in the areas will help in facilitating the collection.

The study is still in the concept phase, but Turton hopes that they will get a sample of about 2 000 teeth, enough to make it statistically relevant.

It is not the first time that a tooth fairy project has been conducted.

In the 1950s in the US, kids’ milk teeth were used in a successful nuclear research project.

The South African tooth fairy project will be tracing the hazardous cocktail of heavy metals that includes arsenic, uranium, copper and nickel which end up in the Wonderfontein Spruit catchment area, from mine drainage.

According to a report, gold mining companies in the West and Far West Rand discharge 50 tons of uranium into the waterways annually.

“You are getting all of this entering the Wonderfontein Spruit and it is not coming out at the other end, it just disappears,” said Turton.


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