One side calls it extremely harmful to our health, while the other hails it as a major medical achievement.
Fluoride has become so ingrained in America since the early 1960s that it is nearly impossible not to ingest it in some form or fashion constantly on a daily basis.
Ashley Graham-Smith of Powell is on the board of the East Tennessee Medical Freedom Alliance, a group of like-minded people who advocate for medical freedom. The group has taken aim at getting fluoride out of Knoxville’s drinking water and started a petition on change.org to support the effort. The petition had 183 signatures as of Thursday.
She said Tennessee trails only Washington D.C. as the most fluoridated area in the U.S.
“My daughter at age 1 was diagnosed with kidney reflux,” Graham-Smith said. “I went down the rabbit hole looking for what might have caused it. I asked a lot of questions; it led me down the path to discovering different things and fluoride just jumped out at me.”
Graham-Smith, who got into the issue about eight years ago, said fluoride has been linked to everything from rotten teeth to low IQ to bone cancer.
She pointed to work by William Marcus, once chief toxicologist at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Drinking Water, who extensively researched fluoride. She quoted his conclusion: “The mutagenicity of fluoride supports the conclusion that fluoride is a probable human carcinogen.”
“The studies are out there that prove that it is harmful and causes diseases,” Graham-Smith said. “This is especially true for children. Babies can only excrete 20 percent of the fluoride they ingest. Bottle-fed babies are consuming 100 times more fluoride than is recommended.”
She said she has installed a reverse osmosis filter in her home to remove fluoride from the drinking water and taken other steps to limit her family’s exposure, but conceded there is no way to keep it totally away, especially with the children in school.
“We don’t receive fluoride only from tap water; it is in almost every bottled beverage. We water our gardens and cook with it,” she said.
Paul Erwin, head of the University of Tennessee Department of Public Health, agreed to an extent that fluoride should be ingested at recommended levels — but he totally disagrees with the idea of taking it out of drinking water.
“Compared to 1962 when the U.S. Public Health Service first recommended fluoride, it has become more widely available in a number of products, not the least of which is toothpaste,” he said.
Erwin points to fluoride’s inclusion on a list of the 10 greatest health achievements of the 20th century by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“The enormous benefits in preventing dental cavities have been shown repeatedly over numerous studies of more than 50 years,” he said. “It has received one of the strongest recommendations from the Community Preventive Services Task Force, which does lengthy reviews of the effectiveness of community intervention. It showed that benefits substantially outweigh risk or harm, particularly if taken at the levels recommended.”
Erwin said having fluoride in drinking water has proven particularly vital among low-income residents.
“Low-income populations don’t have access to good dental services because of the cost,” he said, indicating that drinking water is one of the few ways they can get needed fluoride.
Graham-Smith also pointed to low-income families, saying they are possibly most affected.
“People who are the most at risk don’t have any say into it,” she said. “Malnourished, low-income people don’t go to dentists. Their teeth and their health are the most damaged by their expose to fluoride.”
The two also stand on opposite sides of fluoride economics.
Graham-Smith said she has visited the Knoxville Utilities Board, one of six water suppliers in the Knoxville area. She was told KUB spends $55,000 a year adding fluoride to the water. KUB spends another $88,000 on erosion control “so that fluoride doesn’t eat through the pipes,” she said.
“It seems unhealthy to me that something that can corrode pipes is something we put into our body,” Graham-Smith said.
Erwin said fluoride has saved huge amounts of dollars because it prevents tooth decay and other dental problems, greatly diminishing the expense of treatment.
In this fight, each side accuses the other of presenting misleading if not totally false information.
“The concern is that these organized efforts instill fear on the basis of information that is either inaccurate or irrelevant to community fluoridation,” Erwin said.
Graham-Smith suspects ill intent or neglect.
“There have been so many studies, most by independent scientists and researchers, on the harmful effects of ingesting fluoride,” Graham-Smith said. “It has been ignored by a lot of governments. I don’t know if they have corporate industries involved or they just aren’t reading the information.”
Battlegrounds: The fight over fluoride has been ongoing in many communities through the United States nearly since its introduction.
Fluoride was an ongoing battle in Blount County. In 2013, the South Blount County Utility District’s board voted to reject discontinuing the adding of fluoride to the water system.
Oliver Springs voted to discontinue fluoridation in 2014 over the objections of several area dentists who took part in some heated board sessions.
Graham-Smith said she is not certain when the East Tennessee Medical Freedom Alliance will take its next step.
“We are just trying to snowball the effort into each water district,” she explained. “We have been advised not to go too fast, to get all of our ducks in a row and get supporters to band together. I would like to see something happen no more than a year down the road, but I have read where it can be five or 10 years before you can get things to happen.”