“My greatest fear here is with the advent of the Internet, and with the advent of social media, that a small vocal minority of individuals who are perhaps misinformed are able to reach a great number of people.” So said dentist Harry Hoediono, the incoming head of the Ontario Dental Association, in response to this week’s news that Waterloo, Ont.’s council has voted to stop fluoridating the city’s water supply.
Dr. Hoediono is correct when he says that anti-fluoridation activists are “misinformed”: Fluoride is a safe additive that helps protect billions of Canadian teeth — particularly those owned by poor people who can’t afford proper dental care. But it’s wrong to suggest that this phenomenon is a creature of the Internet. In fact, anti-fluoridation quackery has been with us, in one form of the other, since the early days of the Cold War. And Waterloo, Ont. is hardly the first town that these quacks have conned.
Far from being a dangerous toxin, fluoride is a naturally occurring element in many communities’ water supplies. This is how the United States Public Health Service first noticed the correlation between fluoride and tooth-decay prevention in the 1930s. By the 1950s, large-scale drinking-water fluoridation became common across North America. Mainstream scientists judged the practice to be safe; and over the last 60 years, numerous epidemiological studies have done nothing to shake this consensus.
Yet from the beginning, scattered activists became bothered by the idea that the government was adding something, anything, to their drinking water. As Gretchen Ann Reilly reported in the 2004 book The Politics of Healing, these often were the same activists who objected to mass polio vaccination: Both public-health campaigns tapped into the same instinctive human fear surrounding body integrity.
The fact that mainstream scientists supported fluoridation did little to discourage such activism: Paranoiacs such as Dr. Leo Spira — author of the wonderfully titled The Drama of Fluorine: Arch Enemy of Mankind — argued that all the major laboratories, journals and research institutions had entered into a grand conspiracy to suppress dissenting views (much in the same way that today’s climate-change skeptics imagine a similar conspiracy afoot in regard to anthropogenic global warming).
The amazing thing about the anti-fluoridation movement is the way it has tied together radicals from all points on the cultural spectrum. Some activists are homeopaths. Others are members of Christian sects that believe fluoride to be a forbidden “medication.” Then there are the ultra-libertarians, who see fluoridation as the thin edge of the Brave New World wedge. Warned one Wisconsin anti-fluoridation activist in a 1968 letter to her local newspaper: “There is serious talk of inserting birth-control drugs in public water supplies, and growing whispers of a happier and more manageable society if so-called behavioral drugs are applied.” (A common talking point in these circles is the idea that fluoridation was invented by the Nazis to create a more quiescent society — though Cold War-era anti-fluoridationists generally preferred to blame it on the communists.)
What has made the anti-fluoridation movement so durable is that its activists have hitched their horse to just about every emerging political movement and fad. In the 1960s, anti-fluoridation was cast as a “civil rights” issue. In the 1970s, it was about consumer protection. And in more recent decades, it has become absorbed by the welter of new-age and health-food movements that define the nebulous field known as “alternative medicine.” Some anti-fluoridation activists even argue that fluoridation is a form of “socialized medicine,” a line of attack that will gain fresh legs now that American Tea Party types have accused Barack Obama of plotting to subject U.S. citizens to “death panels.”
The anti-fluoridation saga presents two related lessons: (1) Medical conspiracy theories and urban legends rarely die, they just take new forms according to the changing political fashions; and (2) public-health officials and medical specialists can never take for granted the common sense of ordinary people, even in the case of established technologies such as fluoridation.
There always will be a radicalized group in every society that rejects mainstream science in favour of a fringe narrative that taps into their private anxieties. This week’s wake-up call from Waterloo, Ont. shows what happens when the rest of us sit back and let this fringe control the public agenda.
*Original article online at http://nationalpost.com/opinion/jonathan-kay-why-fluoride-phobia-refuses-to-go-away