The irony of conventional wisdom is how much of it eventually gets debunked. Not long ago, schoolchildren were routinely sprayed with DDT to repel mosquitoes, pregnant women were given thalidomide to treat morning sickness, and people suffering from mental illness were lobotomized to calm them down. Before such practices were revealed as more injurious than the problems they purportedly cured, those who challenged the medical establishment were often branded as quacks, frauds or madmen. Only time revealed whether their apostasy was preposterous or visionary.
One can only wonder what time will tell about the Fluoride Action Network, a Burlington-based international coalition of activists, scientists and environmental groups founded in May 2000. FAN's goal is to raise public awareness about the deleterious effects of water fluoridation and to convince municipalities they should discontinue the practice. The group is now trying to get the issue on the city ballot for the November 2004 election.
Wait a minute, you say. I've seen countless toothpaste commercials over the years and visit my dentist regularly. Fluoride is a bad thing? For 50 years, such bastions of public health as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the National Institutes of Health, the American Dental Association and the World Health Organization have all endorsed water fluoridation as a safe, effective tool for reducing childhood tooth decay. In 1999 the CDC listed fluoridation as one of the 10 greatest public health achievements of the 20th century. Former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop called it "the single most important commitment that a community can make to the oral health of its citizens."
Is FAN taking its marching orders from Col. Jack Ripper, the insane Air Force commander in the 1964 film, Dr. Strangelove, who orders a nuclear strike on the USSR because he believes the communists are polluting America's "precious bodily fluids" with fluoridation?
Check out the facts and decide for yourself. Among the scores of scientists worldwide affiliated with FAN is Paul Connett, a chemistry professor at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y. Earlier this year, Connett was instrumental in winning a seven-year battle to discontinue the fluoridation of Canton's water supply. In August, he and his son Michael presented a paper to the National Research Council in Washington, D.C., calling for a reexamination of safe-water standards for fluoridation.
As Michael Connett explains, the medical establishment doesn't discuss how fluoride prevents tooth decay. "Even people who promote fluoridation acknowledge that its main benefits are topical," he says. "To get the benefit, you have to apply it directly to the teeth."
Despite longstanding assertions to the contrary by the CDC et al., Connett says that recent studies show "no significant difference" in tooth decay between populations with fluoridated water and those without it. As he puts it, "Swallowing fluoride makes about as much sense as swallowing nail polish to polish your nails."
FAN's Web site, http://www.fluoridealert.org, includes an exhaustive outline of possible health effects from fluoride ingestion. They include heightened risks of hip fractures in the elderly, arthritis, cancer, hypothyroid-ism, neurotoxicity and dental fluorosis - the appearance of white or brown spots on the teeth. FAN also claims that fluoride has been linked to elevated absorption of aluminum in the brain, which has been associated with Alzheimer's disease.
Opponents have dubbed fluoride "the protected pollutant," since the compound - added to 66 percent of U.S. public water systems - is an untreated waste product of the phosphate fertilizer industry. "If this stuff gets into the air, it's a pollutant. If it gets into the lake, it's a pollutant," says Dr. J. William Hirzy, senior vice president of the EPA Headquarters Union. "But if it goes right into your drinking water system, it's not a pollutant. That's amazing."
Fluoridation opponents also challenge the practice on ethical grounds, contending that fluoride is the only "medication" added to water supplies. Municipalities have no right to force a medical treatment upon a population without its informed consent, they argue. They note that the FDA has never approved a fluoride product that was meant to be ingested.
Though such arguments fly in the face of prevailing medical wisdom, fluoridation opponents remain undeterred. They point out that in western Europe, where tooth decay rates are at least as low as those in the United States, 98 percent of the public water systems have either discontinued or never allowed fluoridation.
In recent years the anti-fluoridation movement has gained momentum in America. Since 1999, at least 50 U.S. municipalities have discontinued the practice, including Ithaca, N.Y., and Brattleboro and Bennington in Vermont. In January 2002, the Committee of Community Dental Health in Bennington recommended that the town not fluoridate its water. Instead, it suggested promoting good dental health through other means like better dietary practices, tobacco prevention, toothbrush giveaways and improved childhood access to dental care.
Apparently, the ADA is alarmed by this trend. Shortly after FAN launched its Web site, the ADA purchased a similar domain name, http://www.fluoridealert.com, which redirects users to its own site extolling the many virtues of fluoridation.
The CDC's goal is to raise the national rate of fluoridation to 75 percent by 2010. The state with the lowest frequency of fluoridated water is Utah, at 2 percent. Incidentally, Utah was also the childhood home of Donnie and Marie Osmond, who sported the whitest teeth on 1970s television. Go figure.