Remember the great fluoride debate? Back in the 1950s, every voice of authority, from the U.S. Public Health Service to the PTA, supported adding fluoride to the water supply as an effective and totally safe way to promote healthy teeth. The only opponents seemed to be John Birchers and other extremists who regarded the scheme as a diabolical communist plot. In the years since, most of the nation’s major cities fluoridated their water, and the issue appeared closed. No less an objective voice than consumer Reports declared in 1978, “The survival of this fake controversy . . . represents one of the major triumphs of quackery over science in our generation.”
In fact, the debate never ended. Now it may explode as never before, posing new challenges to medical dogma and giving parents one more thing to worry about. Government researchers have new evidence that casts doubt on the benefits of fluoridation and suggests that it is not without risk. The most incendiary results come from the National Toxicology Program (NTP), which in 1977 was ordered by Congress to determine whether fluoride causes cancer. This week NTP plans to release data showing that lab rats given fluoridated water had a higher rate of a rare bone cancer called osteosarcoma. According to a memo by the Environmental Protection Agency, “very preliminary data from recent health studies . . . indicate that fluoride may be a carcinogen.”
Fluoridation proponents are already criticizing the NTP study, but it will be harder to discredit or ignore than the hundreds of earlier experiments, of varying quality and from around the world, that have linked fluoride to mottled teeth, skeletal damage, genetic defects and other ills. During the two-year experiment, rats and mice drank water with different levels of sodium fluoride. None of the animals drinking fluoride-free water developed osteosarcoma, nor did any of those drinking water with the lowest fluoride concentration, 11 parts per million (ppm). But of the 50 male rats consuming 45-ppm water, one developed osteosarcoma. Four of 80 male rats drinking 79-ppm fluoride developed osteosarcoma. No mice or female rats showed signs of bone cancer. Although the animals drank higher concentrations of fluoride than people do (the legal standard is four ppm), such megadosing is standard toxicological practice. It’s the only way to detect an effect without using an impossibly large number of test animals to stand in for the humans exposed to the substance.
Although the final NTP report will not be released for months, several independent toxicologists find the results significant. Most important, the rats who did not drink fluoride did not get cancer, indicating that the malignancies are “not a fluke,” says EPA scientist William Marcus. There is also a convincing relationship between dose and response: the more fluoride, the more cancers. Pathologist David Kaufman of the University of North Carolina warns that the rat data must be examined to see if the cancers appeared in the long bones of the arms and legs, as osteosarcomas do in humans, or in other places, which might make the results less relevant to people. Still, Kaufman says the NTP data “make fluoride look like a weak carcinogen. It’s obviously something to worry about” — but not panic over. There are about 750 cases of osteosarcoma in the United States annually; even if fluoride caused all of them — an impossibility — the lifetime risk to any individual from drinking fluoridated tap water would still be only about one in 5,000.
Too crude: If fluoride causes bone cancer in lab rats, then why, after 45 years of fluoridation, haven’t researchers seen a rash of osteosarcomas in fluoridated cities? Because epidemiology is too crude to detect it even if the cancers are there. In the 1970s, the National Cancer Institute found no sign of higher cancer rates in fluoridated cities. But that reassuring finding may be misleading. According to Donald Taves, a fluoride expert, if the difference were anything less than 7 percent it would not be detectable. Another obstacle to definitive epidemiology is mobility: just because someone got osteosarcoma in a fluoridated city does not mean he had been living there all his life.
The NTP results assume an added importance when combined with recent data on the shrinking benefits of fluoridation. According to the American Dental Association (ADA), tooth decay is anywhere from 50 to 70 percent less in fluoridated areas. But figures from the National Institute of Dental Research (NIDR), part of the National Institutes of Health, suggest otherwise. A 1987 survey of almost 40,000 school-children found that tooth decay had declined sharply everywhere. Children who had always lived in fluoridated areas. This 18 percent translates into a difference of fewer than one cavity per child. Similarly, in a 1986 paper in the British journal Nature, Australian researcher Mark Diesendorf assessed 24 studies from eight countries and found that cavity rates had declined equally in fluoridated and nonfluoridated water isn’t that important.
How can that be? “A good case can be made that it has to do with fluoride in toothpaste and rinses,” says dental-health expert Brian Burt of the University of Michigan. And even if drinking fluoridated water is slightly risky, there is no hint that fluoridated toothpaste — as long as your don’t swallow any — is dangerous. Tooth decay may also be declining because of better diet and hygiene. Also, foods and beverages processed with fluoridated water are ubiquitous. (Many bottled waters, though, do not have fluoride.) As a result, argues Alan Gray, a leading pro-fluoridation dentist in Canada, “it is becoming difficult to provide accurate, ethical advice” about fluoridation.
Among environmental controversies, fluoridation is unique in that one side has consistently denied that questions of risk or benefit even exist. The ADA states, “Anti-fluoridation groups attempt to create the illusion of a scientific controversy [which is] merely a ploy to create doubt about a well-researched, well-demonstrated preventive measure.” But even well-researched articles raise hackles. When, in 1988, Chemical & Engineering News presented a balanced report on fluoridation, it attracted the wrath of the medical establishment. Says Taves, “Too many scientists lost their objectivity. This has become a religion on both sides.”
Safe water: And that undercut the scientific process. The NIDR kept files on people perceived as threats to fluoridation. Political decisions were at odds with expert advice: a panel convened by the surgeon general in 1983 expressed concern, in closed sessions, about skeletal and dental damage from fluoride. At one point, a member said, “You would have to have rocks in your head, in my opinion, to allow your child much more than two parts per million [fluoride].” Said another, “I think we all agree on that.” Even so, in 1986 EPA raised fluoride standard from about two ppm to four.
This month EPA opened a review of the standard. Once EPA receives the official NTP report, it will establish a target “safe” fluoride level. The Safe Drinking Water Act requires that the level be zero for carcinogens, but the standard may be based on what is technically feasible. Fluoridation can be stopped immediately, but many communities with naturally fluoridated water — up to 12 ppm — would have to remove it. As EPA wrestles with the standard, fears John Sullivan of the American Water Works Association, “confusion will reign”: local laws will still require fluoridation, a practice that may cause cancer.
As they await EPA’s decision, pro-fluoridationists are invoking arguments of social justice. Dental researcher Ernest Newbrun of the University of California, San Francisco, contends that fluoridation promotes the health of children of “all races and all socioeconomic classes,” not only those with enough money or discipline or access to the health system to take a fluoride supplement every day. He and others say it is morally wrong not to provide the benefits of fluoride. Although the NIDR’s and other survey suggest that fluoride in toothpastes and dental rinses also ensures healthy teeth for those who use the products, those who do not might suffer.
No one can foresee how the fluoride debate will play out this time. But since the 1950s, the country’s environmental consciousness has been heightened. In the end, deciding whether or not to fluoridate turns less on science than on values. The sheer weight of good research may finally, after four decades, begin to inform those judgments and even overwhelm the unscientific rhetoric that has characterized both sides of the debate for far too long.