HANOVER – A Dartmouth College professor and his research partner believe there may be a link between chemicals used to fluoridate drinking water, the amount of lead absorbed by children and the rates of juvenile crime and special education.
Officials at the national Centers for Disease Control defend the safety of fluoridation.
Roger Masters, a Dartmouth professor of government, and Myron Coplan, a retired chemical engineer in Natick, Mass., have already gathered some statistical evidence indicating that children who live in areas where the drinking water has been treated with silicofluorides have elevated levels of lead in their blood and higher rates of violent crime, which may be attributable to the lead.
“We are looking…at one of the most profound misguided judgments in human history,” Coplan said of the decision roughly 50 years ago to use silicofluorides to fluoridate water.
The Environmental Protection Agency has given Coplan and Masters a one year $50,000 grant to continue studying both the impact of silicofluorides on human lead absorption and the effects of lead toxicity on behavior. Dartmouth is chipping in close to $80,000 of in-kind support for the study. Masters retired this month, but plans to keep teaching at Dartmouth and doing research.
“Being an EPA funded project doesn’t necessarily give it credibility…(but) it may turn out to be something we need to look at,” said David Apanian, a fluoridation engineer with the CDC, which is the federal agency that handles fluoridation.
Many groups and individuals oppose fluoridation and try to prove it causes all kinds of diseases, Apanian said. No studies have proven adverse effects of fluoridation, he said.
Masters said he is not against fluoridation per se and does not want to panic anyone with his theories about silicofluorides. The relationship between chemicals and behavior is a complex, reciprocal one that deserves much study, he said.
“The main point is that environmental pollution can change the chemistry in your brain,” Masters said.
He studies how heavy metals, such as lead, affect human behavior.
It is well-known that lead is harmful to children. Low levels are associated with decreased intelligence and physical size, impaired neurobehavioral development and poor hearing. High levels can cause coma, convulsions and death.
Masters said his research has shown that absorption of too much manganese, another metal, can lead to aggressive behavior. “If you absorb manganese into your body, serotonin goes down. Animals with lower serotonin levels are much more aggressive,” said Masters, who is chairman of the executive committee of the Gruter Institute for Law and Behavioral Research, based in Portola Valley, Calif.
Masters hypothesizes that the damage lead does to the human brain plays a role in increasing violent behavior and the need for special education services.
The EPA grant will be used to study data on children’s lead levels, socio-economic and demographic factors, crime, environmental pollution and rates of learning disabilities.
Coplan focuses his research on how silicofluorides work inside water pipes and inside humans. He is trying to determine whether silicofluorides play a role in increasing the amount of lead in children’s blood.
No communities in Vermont use silicofluorides in their water, according to Alida Lund, a fluoridation technician with the Vermont Department of Health. In New Hampshire, water systems in Concord, Dover, Portsmouth and Rochester use fluosilicic acid, which is a silicofluoride, according to information from the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services.
Officials in the department said they were unaware of the theory that silicofluorides might increase lead absorption.
Coplan is looking at whether silicofluorides increase the lead contained in drinking water and whether silicofluorides make it easier for lead from other sources to get into the blood.
“The presence of silicofluoric residue in the digestive system makes it easier for lead from any source to cross the gut membrane into the bloodstream,” Coplan said. If a child gets dust from lead paint onto his hands and that dust gets onto his sandwich, that lead would get into his stomach, Coplan explained.
His hypothesis is that silicofluorides in the stomach act as a “molecular ferry” that carries lead into the bloodstream, which transports it throughout the body.
Tom Reeves, an engineer in the CDC’s department of oral health, said silicofluorides completely break down in water so they would not exist in someone’s stomach.
Coplan and Masters cite laboratory tests showing that silicofluorides do not completely break down.
Officials at the American Water Works Association in Denver and the CDC in Atlanta disputed Coplan’s second theory that silicofluorides increase the acidity of water and therefore increase the amount of lead leached from pipes and solder into drinking water.
Apanian, the CDC fluoridation engineer, said the small amount of silicofluorides that is added to drinking water will increase the acidity of water, but by a marginal amount.
“Typically you already have water that is corrosive or not,” Apanian said. If the water is not corrosive, adding silicofluorides will not make it corrosive, Reeves said. If the water is corrosive, you already have a problem, he said.
Communities are required to monitor the corrosiveness of their water and test for lead and copper in the water being delivered to homes, Apanian said.
More than 134 million people (52 percent of the population) were connected to artificially fluoridated public water systems in 1992, the most recent year for which information was available, according to the CDC.
Masters and Coplan think their theory about silicofluorides holds out hope for explaining and possibly correcting some serious social problems, but they acknowledge many factors play a role in human behavior and the reaction to lead.
“I don’t believe it’s the answer to everything,” Coplan said. “I’m not stupid.”