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Dental Students Appear To Be Buying Black Market Teeth, Potentially Robbed From Graves

James Felton

James Felton

James Felton

James Felton

Senior Staff Writer

James is a published author with four pop-history and science books to his name. He specializes in history, strange science, and anything out of the ordinary.

Senior Staff Writer

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A Phantom Head used by dental students.

A Phantom Head used by dental students. Image credit: Bin im Garten/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Before dentists get to go to town on real human mouths, they need to get a lot of practice in. You wouldn't let a doctor have a first try at a prostate exam on you, so why would you let a dentist have their first crack on your molars?

The problem is sourcing teeth that aren't currently in use. It's not like you can go and purchase a big mixed pack of human teeth on Etsy. Oh all right then, yes you can, but the point remains that they're not the easiest product to come by. The dead (other than those who donate their bodies to science) tend to keep them in their mouths, while the living tend to use them for chewing.

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For years – depending on the institution of course – dentists around the world have had to source their own teeth to practice on. Like how you have to provide your own stationery if you take psychology, but it's human molars.

"In the eighties, we had to collect our own extracted teeth so they could be set into a Phantom Head," dentist Ollie Jupes told IFLScience, explaining that they would literally have to go around dental practices with a bucket like trick or treaters but for human teeth. "It all felt a little bit Burke and Hare and I was uncomfortable doing it. Being a mature student, I manned up to the task and sent my wife to do it instead."

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Here's an ancient Phantom Head. No real reason, just thought you'd like to say hi.

This practice has continued to the present, though there are other legitimate organizations, such as the Tooth Bank, where dentists can donate teeth and dental students can purchase them.

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Then there are the less than legitimate sources where students have been known to buy teeth, which students will occasionally stumble upon.

"I’m not sure how far back this practice goes, but currently, most dental schools require students to provide a jar of extracted teeth when they arrive for their first year. These teeth are used for dental anatomy courses, and even mounted in modified typodonts for pre-clinical practice," The Dental Geek wrote, above several commenters recommending websites where they can be purchased.

"I just ran across a website that will actually sell you perfectly formed, non-carious teeth of various types in lots of fifty [...] It might be worth it for an incoming class to consider ordering a batch. However, while it is clear how oral surgeons end up with so many human teeth, I wonder how this website finds enough virgin teeth to sell in huge lots like that. It is slightly disconcerting when you think about how few virgin teeth really need to be extracted."

One company sends out any ordered teeth in a box of artwork, which the Tooth Bank – who are running a campaign to end illicit trade in teeth – claim is "all to avoid postal inspection" as they arrive into the US.

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"What these students don't realize is how these teeth are being sourced," Brett Becker, co-director of donor relations at Tooth Bank said in the video. "Even though exporting teeth from India and China was outlawed decades ago, black markets for these exports remain in operation today. These otherwise healthy teeth are often sourced by manipulating the impoverished, and even through grave robbing."

India outlawed the export of human parts in 1985 after a dealer was caught selling over 1,500 child skeletons of unknown origin, prompting concerns that people may have been murdered for them – though illegal trade still continues in India and elsewhere.

Tooth Bank advises you to play it safe and obtain your teeth through ethical sources, where you know exactly where they came from.


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