No one who saw the 1964 movie, “Dr. Strangelove” can forget Jack D. Ripper, a paranoid, intellectually-challenged Air Force general who launched an unprovoked nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. The General’s extreme paranoia about communism was at least partially fueled by the ever-growing fluoridation of U.S. municipal water supplies. In one of his more memorable tirades, Ripper asks, “You know when fluoridation first began? “Nineteen forty-six! How does that coincide with your post-war Commie conspiracy…a foreign substance is introduced into our precious bodily fluids without the knowledge of the individual. Certainly without any choice. That’s the way your hard core Commie works.”
And that’s the way that Stanley Kubrick, director of “Strangelove,” poked fun at anti-fluoridation groups of the day. Yet, despite the ridicule, despite support of fluoridation by the American Medical Association, the American Dental Association, the Centers for Disease Control and the National Academy of Science, and despite overwhelming evidence that fluoridation of drinking water is both safe and effective in preventing tooth decay, anti-fluoridation fanatics in the U.S. are still at it.
Indeed, they’ve had some success. While perhaps two-thirds of Americans who rely on city water supplies now use and drink fluoridated water, about a hundred U.S. communities, most of them small, have succumbed to scare tactics and stopped fluoridating their water supplies. But in Fort Collins, Colorado, this month, the anti-fluoridation forces suffered a crushing defeat. By a lop-sided vote of 20,626 to 10,501, the city’s residents turned down a proposed ordinance that would have banned fluoridation of the city’s drinking water.
Though both the city council and a city-appointed task force had approved continued fluoridation, a successful petition drive by a group called the Fort Collins Clean Water Advocates placed on the ballot a proposition to halt the practice. The group was led by a “nutritionist” who, among other practices, prescribes detoxifying foot baths for her clients, and included a high number of acupuncturists, chiropractors, massage therapists, nurses and other devotees of alternative medicine—as well as some outright quacks. “I would characterize them as Luddites,” says Linda Rosa, Colorado director of the National Council Against Health Fraud, and an activist with a reputation for exposing questionable medical practices.
Using the tactics often used successfully by other anti-fluoridation groups, the Advocates charged that fluoride is linked to cancer, thyroid disease and even attention deficit disorder. Adding it to the water supply, they complained, was tantamount to medicating the entire city population without its consent. Indeed, their proposition, as printed on the ballot, contained 24 clauses, some based on questionable studies and each providing a reason for banning fluoridation. Not one was scientifically valid and some seemed intentionally misleading.
This time, however, the pro-fluoridation forces were ready. Two months before the vote, some 250 dental and health professionals were mobilized and encouraged to speak out and inform their patients about the benefit of fluoride in their water. Colorado’s entire Congressional delegation in Washington was approached and all agreed to endorse fluoridation. Newspaper ads and television commercials urged a “No” vote on the proposition.
Perhaps most effective, Linda Rosa’s husband, mathematician Larry Sarner, created and publicized a compelling web site) brimming with clever and scientifically-valid, easily-understandable information about fluoridation. It points out, for example, that the town of Antigo, Wisconsin, began fluoridation in 1949 and ceased it in 1960. Five years later, after as much as a doubling of tooth decay in some elementary school children, fluoridation was reinstated.
Rosa and Sarner are now turning their attention to Boulder, Colorado, a much larger city where anti-fluoridation forces are apparently gearing up for a petition drive. The couple plans to help thwart that drive by offering their services and a version of Sarner’s website tailored for Boulder. “You have to answer them,” says Sarner, pointing out that anti-fluoridation groups rely on small voter turnouts and an unwary and uninformed electorate. “They’ll sneak in a victory and then tout it in the next place,” he says. “At least we’ve robbed them of that. Now they can’t use Fort Collins to leverage Boulder.”
And the citizens of Fort Collins can keep their healthy smiles.