Dental News

Tooth prints: a unique ID tool

Saturday, June 14, 2003″After his son Adam was abducted and murdered, John Walsh said he wanted to thank the dental profession for giving some closure to his ordeal, since Adam was identified through dental forensics,” says Dr. Tesini.

Mr. Walsh’s speech got Dr. Tesini wondering how children’s dentition-often caries-free thanks to fluorides and good oral care-could be identified without markers like restorations or other dental work. And, with a young son of his own, he wondered as a parent how the process could help find lost or abducted children.

Since every child’s teeth have distinctive sizes, shapes, positions and relationship in the bite, he says, he developed a way to make “tooth prints” by having the child bite into wax wafers.

“Every child’s tooth print is unique, kind of like a dental fingerprint,” he says. “And by recording them, we can make a reliable, long-term record that can be used to identify them.”

The original tooth prints, he notes, were too sensitive to temperature, so he modified them by using thermal plastic wafers. A wafer is warmed until pliable and then tooth printed by a child. The wafer then hardens into a reliable long-term record of the child’s unique dentition.

Another plus for tooth prints is that when they are sealed in a zippered plastic baggie, the child’s DNA from his or her saliva as well as the scent of saliva remains on the wafers, facilitating use of DNA evidence in identifications and scents for scent dogs searching for missing children.

Tooth printing was embraced in the state of Massachusetts in 1999 as part of a unique community-based child identification program called CHIP for short. So far, more than 161,000 children in the state have participated in the program.

Volunteers take three types of vital records at school-, community- and health fair-based CHIP programs: tooth prints, fingerprints and a video that records children’s appearance, mannerisms and voice.

The state program is funded by the Massachusetts Freemasons and more than 1,500 Massachusetts Dental Society member dentists have volunteered in their communities for the program. The Freemasons administrate CHIP programs in 20 states, and tooth printing is a component of the programs in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Nevada and Rhode Island.

“Massachusetts dentists have donated about $4.8 million in time to protect kids in their communities in the last five years,” says Dr. David Harte, state Masonic CHIP program director. “To date, 37 school systems participate in the program and at least a third of MDS member dentists have volunteered their time and talents.

“This program is a good thing for dentistry and I encourage state societies to seek similar collaborations,” says Dr. Michael Swartz, a member of the ADA Council on Access, Prevention and Interprofessional Relations. “CHIP is also an excellent way to enhance public relations for the profession, for participating community organizations and for each volunteer dentist’s own practice. Not only is it a great public service, it’s something that makes you feel good about doing it-that’s what volunteering is all about.”

Former MDS president, Dr. Swartz helped set up the tooth printing portion of the state CHIP program with the Freemasons and the dental society during his term in office.

“Tragedies like plane crashes, 9-11 and high-profile cases like the Elizabeth Smart abduction have shown us how important a good identification system can be,” adds Dr. Harte. “Dentists can play a significant role in helping protect children and bringing families peace of mind.”