An Encino dentist has begun installing microscopic disks on children's teeth to identify the wearer and help locate parents in the event of an emergency.
The disk, about the size of a pinhead, typically contains the individual's name, address, telephone number, blood type, Social Security number, if any, and a brief notation of any medical problems. It is applied with resin to an upper molar and can be viewed in the mouth with the aid of a high-powered magnifying glass.
The product, whose effectiveness has been praised as "valuable" and criticized as "limited," was developed last spring by Police Sgt. Jim Conover and a forensic dentist, Dr. Jeffrey Maxwell, both of Pekin, Ill. Conover had complained about the difficulty of using dental records to identify living and dead children, some of whom have no fillings or other distinguishable dental work.
Few in California
Conover said about 3,000 of the disks are in use nationwide but only a handful in California. Four of those have been installed within the past two weeks by Dr. Robert Drosman of Encino, who said he believes that the disks are preferable to fingerprinting and dental charts in identifying the living, because they provide instant information.
"The identification is right there," Drosman said. "With fingerprints and dental charts, you have to correlate the information with the police, FBI, the parents or whoever has the records."
The disk costs $15, and Drosman has been charging an application fee of $5. Although the product can be used to help identify anyone, Drosman said he has been encouraging its use for children.
With routine maintenance every six months, the disk could last indefinitely, Conover said. However, because the product is so new, its durability has not been tested.
Reaction to the disk among hospital, law enforcement and coroner's officials is mixed.
Debra Pine, the administrative nurse in the emergency room at the Medical Center of Tarzana, said she believes the disk will aid hospital personnel in medical emergencies.
"The impact on medical emergencies where we don't have an identification on the child would be dramatic," Pine said. "Unless an injury is severely life threatening, we cannot even treat a child without parental consent. And regardless of the extent of the injury, you always want to let the parent know that their child has entered the hospital."
The product, however, is worthless unless someone knows to look for it, said Drosman, who has been visiting hospitals and community groups to notify them that the disk is being used in the area.
One critic of the disk is Lt. Charles Long of the Los Angeles Police Department's Juvenile Division.
Although he had not previously heard of the product, Long said: "This sounds like just another organization that possibly can get rich off people getting scared and worrying about their children."
Long said he is concerned about a growing hysteria over missing children. He sought to clarify some statistics, which he said had not been fully explained by companies trying to exploit parents' fears for financial gain.
Although the FBI reported that there were 27,240 juveniles missing nationwide as of Feb. 1, Long said most of them either ran away from home or were snatched away by a parent fighting for custody of the child.
"The statistics are causing undue fright," Long said. "We've seen reports of 50,000 to 100,000 kids vanishing. Right there, that will put people on edge and make them wonder what they should do to protect their child."
Jay Howell, the executive director of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, confirmed that 50% to 75% of missing children leave home voluntarily, but he said there are currently about 100 unidentified bodies nationwide of individuals under 21.
Product 'Has Merit'
Howell said although the disk "would not prevent an abduction," it could be useful in identifying children who have been recovered but are too young or traumatized to tell authorities who they are.
He said the product has merit and does not fall into the category of high-priced items that clearly are aimed at playing on parents' fears for profit.
The chief forensic dentist for the Los Angeles County coroner's office agreed with the Police Department's Long that the product would have limited use in identifying either adults or children in the county morgue.
"I would welcome something that would make my job easier, but this isn't it," Dr. Gerald Vale said.
Vale said 300 to 500 unidentified bodies come into the coroner's office each year and only 30 to 40 remain unidentified at the end of the year. Many are transients who have no teeth or whose hygiene habits are such that they would not likely pay for a dentist to install such a disk.
Vale said he identifies an average of 100 bodies annually using dental charts--a procedure he believes is superior to a dental disk, which could be destroyed along with the tooth in a fire or accident.