At a public meeting in New York City last month, the topic was supposed to be the state’s $8 billion Medicaid waiver program. But when 13 anti-fluoride activists took the microphone to protest the use of Medicaid funds for fluoride, it became something unexpected.
A 16-year-old high school student skipped class to talk about what she said was an allergic reaction to a fluoride treatment. A woman waved children’s toothpaste at Jason Helgerson, the state’s Medicaid director. A nutritionist claimed the Nazis used fluoride to keep people docile. And a young woman whipped out a ukulele to sing a ditty she wrote entitled “Get the F Out of Our Water.”
The anti-fluoride fight, which began 70 years ago when when municipal and county governments began fluoridating water after World War II, has seen a resurgence in New York in recent months. A cause once associated with Cold War anxieties and government conspiracies has been adopted by a new generation of environmental activists in blue states like New York and Oregon.
In New York, a seemingly innocuous provision in the state budget, called the “Healthy Teeth Amendment,” gave health commissioner Howard Zucker $3.5 million in Medicaid funds to award to communities looking to fluoridate the water supply. The law also requires communities that are ending fluoridation to provide an alternative.
“I think it’s really outrageous and quite frankly offensive,” Michael Connett, executive director of anti-fluoride group Fluoride Action Network, said of the use of Medicaid savings for water fluoridation.
Protests and meeting takeovers could continue in upcoming months, as Albany County hopes to fluoridate the water supply, a pro-fluoride group Cavity Free Cortland is pushing that municipality’s City Council to fluoridate the water.
The anti-fluoride activists in New York come from two groups, the New York Coalition Against Artificial Fluoridation and the Fluoride Action Network. CAAF was founded last year to focus specifically on New York City, where all of the water supply is fluoridated, and had 12 members at its first meeting in 2015. They write to City Council members, explaining their views and post links to articles they believe support their cause.
In 2011, Peter Vallone, then a member of the City Council, sponsored a bill with now Public Advocate Letitia James and Councilmembers Fernando Cabrera, Elizabeth Crowley, Jumaane Williams and Daniel Halloran, that would have prohibited the addition of fluoride to the New York City water system. New York has been adding fluoride to its water since 1965.
At the time, Vallone said fluoridation amounted “to forced medication by the government.”
The bill went nowhere. Vallone did not respond to requests for comment about his current position.
Vallone, a Democrat from Queens, is not the type of politician who would have been associated with the anti-fluoride movement 60 years ago, when far-right anti-communist groups like the John Birch Society drove the anti-fluoride fight.
Historically, anti-fluoridation has been associated with Republican-leaning states and far-right groups, but in recent years, the movement has shifted into the liberal fringes.
Anti-fluoride activists have taken action in Washington state and Pennsylvania, and an anti-fluoride fight in Albuquerque, New Mexico, caused the water utility authority to remove funding for more fluoride from the 2017 budget. Portland, Oregon has voted against fluoridating its water supply on four occasions since 1956, most recently in 2013.
Fluoride Action Network, founded in 2000, has 36,000 people on its national mailing list. The group orchestrates protests around the country, and hijacked the 60th birthday party of fluoride in Chicago in 2005.
FAN was started by Paul Connett, Michael Connett’s father and a retired chemistry professor who rose to prominence in the late 1980’s after working to end barrel waste burning, arguing that the practice released harmful chemicals into the atmosphere. At first, experts denied Connett’s research on waste burning, but ultimately it was widely accepted by the scientific community. As for his fluoride research, however, medical experts renounce his claims en masse.
The American Dental Association, American Medical Association, Academy of General Dentistry, American Academy of Family Physicians, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, and a nearly endless list of other American academies and associations all denounce Connett’s work and have endorsed community fluoridation.
“Pretty much every reputable medical body in the world would agree,” said Kate Breslin, the president and CEO of the Schuyler Center for Analysis and Advocacy, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that is part of the long list of fluoride advocates.
As fluoridated water became increasingly popular in the United States, the average number of decayed, filled, or missing teeth in 12 year olds fell 68 percent between 1966 and 1994, and a 2011 study found that children living in non-fluoridated areas were 32 percent more likely to have tooth decay.
The public health benefits of fluoridated water have also been effective in reducing the socioeconomic disparities of dental disease, which is more prevalent in low-income communities, according to the Schuyler Center.
But its critics remain.
Many say they simply don’t like the government making health decisions for its citizens.
“If you want to buy toothpaste with fluoride in it go right ahead,” said Sharon Nibor, the head of the New York Coalition Against Artificial Fluoridation. “Just don’t drink it.”
Nibor recently discussed her views with a reporter at a Manhattan restaurant, where she didn’t drink the water. She said that the last name she uses in her anti-fluoridation advocacy, Nibor, is a pseudonym. She works in one of the city’s public hospitals and is afraid she could lose her job if she “comes out” as an anti-fluoridationist.
“I just found that if you mention the word fluoride, people look at you like, ‘Oh God, really? You’re one of those? You’re in the boat with all those crazies out there who think that you should be wearing a tin hat at night so that aliens don’t muck up your mind?”’ Nibor said.
Some people, she said, think fluoride is a vast conspiracy to dumb down the masses.
“It does dumb you down, but I don’t think they knew that back then,” Nibor said referring to the early days of fluoride. “Nobody wants that.”
Nibor instead believes that medical professionals are simply ignorant of the damage they’re doing because they haven’t read the science that purports to show that fluoride is dangerous.
Though CAAF and FAN insist the science is on their side, the groups’ members recognize that their message may attract people who push anti-government conspiracies or oppose vaccines.
But that’s not what they want their focus to be, nor do they want their message to be muddled.
“We’re totally science-based,” said Carol Kopf, FAN’s media director.
FAN and CAAF supporters often point to a 2015 Cochrane study that, they say, shows the benefits of fluoride to be “lukewarm at best,” and they often promote a 2006 National Academies of Science report tying high levels of fluoride to endocrine disruption, fertility issues, and even Down Syndrome. That report, however, looked at the effects of fluoride at two and four mg/L, much higher than the .7 mg/L level that is put into water systems.
The Schuyler Center responded to the anti-fluoride promotion of the Cochran study in an email, saying, “Anti-fluoridationists so abused the Plain Language Summary (PLS) of the Cochrane Review that the Cochrane Oral Health Group (COHG) rewrote their Plain Language Summary.”
As for the National Academies of Science report, the Schuyler Center’s Bridget Walsh said, “The fact that FAN consistently misrepresents the … report is proof that they are willing to misrepresent the facts if they think it will help them scare people.”
Fear of the water is nothing new, said David Rosner, a professor at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health.
“When you think about water and water provision, you think about some of the most terrible public health crises in history,” he said, referring to typhoid and cholera as well as the lead poisoning scandal in Flint, Michigan.
“The way I see the anti-fluoride people is that some of what are part of this older tradition where they suspect government,” he said. “Others are more right-wing activists,” and others, he said, are environmentalists concerned about chemicals in water.
Rosner also sees the resistance to fluoride as a symbol of larger resistance to the state, “a modern version of antagonism to the New Deal, experts, and professionals.”
“It’s a really toxic brew of folks who have these deep roots of distrust of authority and real concerns about what we’re doing to ourselves chemically,” Rosner said. “You mix that up with some anti-authoritarianism” and the result is a group like FAN, he said, who called mass access to clean, safe water “the greatest public health victory” of all time.
Connett, FAN’s executive director, disputed Rosner’s characterization of anti-fluoridationists. “There’s a lot of preconceptions that have been built up over the years that makes it hard for people to just look at this anew and not just see it as right-wing garbage,” he said.
Connett said he is a Democrat.
“I’m a big supporter of universal health care,” he said, “but when you look below the surface [at fluoride], this is not health care. … It’s perfectly executed public relations.”
*Original article online at https://www.politico.com/states/new-york/albany/story/2016/06/anti-fluoride-fight-sees-resurgence-102487