All About Fluoridation
A few fringe activists claim that fluoridation of water carries more danger than benefit.
by Brian Dunning
July 30, 2007
Also available in Chinese | Russian
Today we're going to wrap our big juicy lips around the kitchen faucet, turn on the valve, and fill our bodies with a poisonous chemical placed in our water by the government: fluoride.
Most people understand that fluoridation of water means that fluoride is added by the local municipal water supplier, and that's generally correct. What most people don't know is that in some cases, fluoridation means removing excess fluoride that occurs naturally in the water supply. Fluoride is a natural component of groundwater, and it occurs naturally everywhere in the world, in varying amounts. The process of fluoridation is to adjust the fluoride content of the water to the most healthful level.
So how did fluoridation become a normal part of municipal water supply? It all goes back to an early 20th century dentist named Dr. Frederick McKay, who practiced dentistry in Colorado, and noticed that a lot of his patients seemed to have brown teeth. In Texas, brown teeth were so prevalent that they were simply called "Texas Teeth". Dr. McKay spent 30 years investigating the cause. Why? Because it also turned out that people with Texas Teeth also had extremely low levels of dental decay. If you had brown teeth, you were only 1/3 as likely to have cavities.
Finally, in 1931, it was determined that naturally occurring fluoride in the local drinking water was responsible for both the discoloration and the lack of decay. Texas and Colorado had extremely high levels of natural fluoride, causing the discoloration, a condition now known as dental fluorosis, which is harmless if a tad unattractive. Years of research and testing in different cities and states, conducted by the National Health Service, determined that 0.7 parts per million was the ideal proportion, giving the same protection from decay, and avoiding the dental fluorosis. Ever since then, it has been the standard practice to regulate fluoride levels in municipal water supplies to 0.7 parts per million. There has been broad scientific and medical consensus for decades that this concentration of fluoride is best for health, and exactly zero rigorously conducted scientific trials that have indicated any sign of danger. For all practical purposes, it is an over-and-done-with issue.
Update: Earlier versions of this showed a value of 1 ppm. Prior to 2015, the recommendation was in the range of 0.7 to 1.2 ppm, and in 2015 the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services set it at 0.7. - BD
And yet, like so many advances in science or medicine, fluoridation is criticized by a small yet vocal fringe group. There is absolutely an anti-fluoridation lobby in this country. Their process is to flood the mass media with as many claims as they can invent: Claims like fluoridation causes cancer or other illnesses; that insufficient research has been done or that there is "scientific controversy" surrounding fluoridation; that fluoride is a dangerous chemical poison; that fluoridation has been banned in Europe; that it eliminates your freedom of choice; or any of a dozen other baseless and untrue statements intended to alarm and frighten the public. Alarming the public is not hard to do. There are many communities in the United States where voters have been compelled to ban fluoridation by this widespread misinformation campaign.
Let's turn our eye onto one such community, Arcata, an idyllic coastal hamlet in northern California, that recently won this battle after a divisive and painful fight in the newspapers and in city hall. A principal champion of the science behind fluoridation is Kevin Hoover, editor of the Arcata Eye newspaper. In answering the flood of anti-fluoridation scare tactics, Hoover said:
There are no known victims. If there was a problem with municipal fluoridation, wouldn't we have at least a few people who showed some signs of harm after 44 years? All the anti-fluoride people could say was that the victims are "undiagnosed," but not why. They produced no victims, just lots of dubious statistics and horror stories with no provenance.
Measure W to ban fluoridation was carefully crafted by the anti-fluoridation lobby to simply require FDA approval of anything added to Arcata's water supply, which sounds reasonable and sounds like a good idea, and a layperson otherwise uninformed would be likely to vote for it. The catch is that the Food & Drug Administration has nothing whatsoever to do with municipal water supplies, and so of course FDA approval would never happen, by law. Measure W was essentially a devious, deceitful trick intended to further the anti-fluoridation lobby's agenda at the expense of the dental health of Arcata's children. Generally, it's this same tactic that has been responsible for most anti-fluoridation measures that have passed in the United States.
How else does the anti-fluoridation lobby go about spreading their misinformation? Generally they distribute an eight page pamphlet written by Dr. John Yiamouyiannis, the grandfather of anti-fluoridation activism. Dr. Yiamouyiannis was a naturopath who rejected modern medicine, and was the principal originator of the claim that fluoridation causes cancer. He raised his family with an emphasis on a fluoride-free diet to avoid cancer. And, as I'm sure you've guessed, Dr. Yiamouyiannis died of cancer in 2000, which he had refused to treat in accordance with his naturopathic philosophy. His type of cancer has a 95% 5-year survival rate, when properly treated.
Most other experts cited by activists are people like Dr. Hugo Theorell, who did indeed oppose fluoridation in the early days. What they don't tell you is that Dr. Theorell changed his mind and became a supporter after the research was published. They'll often cite Swedish Nobel Prize winner Arvid Carlsson, known for his work with dopamine. He's the only known Nobel Prize winner to oppose fluoridation, but the activists multiply him and frequently say that "dozens" or "many" Nobel Prize winners oppose it. When you can only find one guy who opposes something, and his work is in a completely different field anyway, that's a pretty sad commentary on your position. It's also a case of the exception proving the rule. There are always a few contrarian scientists in every field with opinions opposite from the consensus.
It's also stated that fluoridation adds dangerous levels of lead, arsenic, and mercury to the water. Again, this is simply untrue, and making such a claim is really a form of terrorism. In Arcata, no detectable levels of any of those are found in the fluoridated water. Not just below safe levels, mind you; zero.
You'll also hear the claim that fluoridation has been banned in Europe. This is also completely untrue. In Europe it's more common to fluoridate salt instead of water, thus bringing the same benefits via a different delivery method. As long as you don't look at that fact, the anti-fluoridation people can truthfully say that "Europe rejects fluoridation of water."
Thanks to the efforts of Hoover and all of Arcata's doctors, dentists, educators, social workers and newspapers, Measure W to ban fluoridation was soundly defeated in the election. And it's a good thing, too: according to sources in Arcata, if Measure W had passed, the same people were going to try and ban childhood vaccinations next.
Why do they do it? We can really only speculate. Presumably most of these people are good citizens who love their families and want the best for everyone. I speculate that a lot of them are simply ignorant of the facts, and possibly mistrust of the government or anticorporatism compels them to tend to ignore information from official sources and embrace alternative claims, whatever their source. Hoover gave his own answer to this question in an editorial for the Arcata Eye:
Billion-dollar industries thrive around entirely imaginary “phenomena.” Astrology, numerology, UFOs, alien abductions, Holocaust denial, the face on Mars, “chemtrails,” innumerable media-centered conspiracy theories and fluoride-phobia thrive because they inhabit that magical nexus where paranoia meets superstition – fertile ground for fomenting fear.
The United States Public Health Service estimates that every dollar spent fluoridating water saves fifty dollars in dental expenses. If fluoridation is truly just another conspiracy, then at least this is one that saves money.
By Brian Dunning
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "All About Fluoridation." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
30 Jul 2007. Web.
22 Feb 2018. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4058>
References & Further Reading
Estupiñán-Day, Saskia. Promoting oral health: the use of salt fluoridation to prevent dental caries. Washington DC: Pan American Health Organization, 2005.
Griffin, SO, Jones, K, Tomar, SL. "An Economic Evaluation of Community Water Fluoridation." Journal of Public Heath Dentistry. 1 Mar. 2001, Volume 61, Number 2: 78-86.
Hem, John D. Study and Interpretation of the Chemical Characteristics of Natural Water. Washington DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2005. 120-123.
Langford, Cameron. "GOP Hosts County’s Public Health Officer for Fluoride Talk." Humboldt Advocate. 14 Jul. 2006, Newspaper: Unknown.
McKay, Frederick S. "Mass Control of Dental Caries Through the Use of Domestic Water Supplies Containing Fluorine." American Journal of Public Heath Nations Health. 1 Jun. 1948, Volume 38, Number 6: 828-832.
National Cancer Institute. "Fluoridated Water: Questions and Answers." National Cancer Institute - Comprehensive Cancer Information. National Institutes for Health, 29 Jun. 2005. Web. 12 Nov. 2009. <http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Risk/fluoridated-water>
Nixon, Janice M., Carpenter, R. G. "Mortality in areas containing natural fluoride in their water supplies, taking account of socioenvironmental factors and water hardness." The Lancet. 2 Nov. 1974, Volume 304, Issue 78: 1068-1071.
WHO. Inadequate or Excess Fluoride: A Major Public Health Concern. Geneva: World Health Organization, 2010.
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