Human Teeth Reveal History of Catastrophes

Did you know that teeth are capable of storing records of our history, even to the point of keeping track of the radiation and environmental pollutants we have come across? Based on this, scientists are in the process of developing devices that will use teeth enamel and test the amount of radiation a given person has been exposed to during emergencies such as a dirty bomb explosion.

Barry Pass, Professor, College of Dentistry, Howard University, Washington DC says, “Dental enamel is quite a remarkable material. There is a world of information in the tooth.”
When you are exposed to radiation, that energy creates free radicals in your body which are atoms that contain an extra unpaired electron. This makes it unstable for healthy tissue as radiation could harm regular molecules in your body by nicking electrons and causing damage to DNA. However, free radicals are fairly useful indicators regarding the degree of radiation that an individual has been exposed to. To measure these levels in your teeth, scientists are currently working on a process called Electron Paramagnetic Resonance (EPR).

A technique such as EPR could be quite useful towards estimating the amount of harm done following a huge release of radiation from something like a dirty bomb. It is a very simple process. The scientist, with the use of a dental drill, will carve out a very tiny piece of a tooth, without causing any harm to it. The sample is then subjected to microwave energy to gauge the amount of energy left after passing through this fragment – which in turn tells you the number of free radicals contained in it.

As remarkable as the process sounds, like most others, it does have its disadvantages. One of them being that the sample must be extracted by a trained dentist using specific tools, and the other being that it does take a bit of time. All drawbacks which will not make it easy to carry out a fast assessment after an emergency. The other drawback is that the EPR process is only able to detect fairly high levels of radiation, which works in times of huge emergencies – but not to test other levels of radiation encountered during the course of life.