These days, fluoride is hardly viewed as a subversive communist plot to “sap and impurify our precious bodily fluids,” as Ripper believed. Yet, while the public has largely accepted fluoridation in the name of protecting our pearly whites against cavities, fluoride could also enter the food supply as a pesticide, adding to the amount we’re exposed to through water and toothpaste.
Although the EPA says it’s safe, fluoride activists believe that ProFume, a pesticide used to keep rodents and insects out of food-storage facilities, warehouses, and shipping containers, may contain levels of fluoride dangerous to humans. Elevated fluoride levels have been linked to reduced cognitive ability, pineal gland imbalance, and tooth decay.
Water in the U.S. was first treated with sodium fluoride in 1945 and today the U.S. is only one of four countries, including Australia, Ireland, and New Zealand, that fluoridates municipal water supplies, serving 300 million people worldwide. With the advent of the Dow AgroSciences pesticide ProFume, millions of Americans could also ingest fluoride in their food. An alternative pesticide to ozone-depleting methyl bromide, which is being phased out after 50 years, ProFume is approved for use in “non-residential structures,” including processed-food and pet-food facilities, warehouses, and shipping containers. ProFume’s active ingredient is sulfuryl fluoride, a highly toxic gas that kills insects and rodents in nearly all life stages, although insect eggs seem resistant to it.
The chemical industry and federal government, including the Environmnental Protection Agency, support ProFume because experimental fumigations have shown it works more efficiently than methyl bromide, is non-combustible, doesn’t damage electronic equipment in buildings, and aerates well. The EPA has stated ProFume doesn’t harm human health.
Activists disagree. Last December, the Fluoride Action Network, Beyond Pesticides, and the Environmental Working Group issued a statement to the EPA opposing government approval of ProFume. They contend that fluoride’s cumulative effects can be harmful in places where children and adults drink highly fluoridated water and use toothpaste. The EPA standard for fluoride in water is 4 ppm, although the agency requires water suppliers to warn consumers that children should not drink the water if it contains more than 2 ppm.
Excess fluoride can affect the brain, impair insulin secretion, and lower the thyroid-gland activity, according to specialists cited in the activists’ statement. Fluoride can accumulate in the bones and pineal gland, which produces melatonin and seratonin. Disrupting the pineal gland can can affect the onset of puberty. Elevated fluoride levels are also associated with reduced cognitive ability according to numerous studies conducted throughout East Asia, Venezuela, and more than 30 animal studies published since 1992.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention discount the Fluoride Action Network’s research on ProFume and the effects of excess fluoride in the diet. “They make a lot of claims based on individual studies,” explained Linda Orgain, CDC health communications specialist. “We make policy based on looking at the evidence of group studies that have been published. They raise people’s concerns, which is unnecessary. We’ve looked at the issue.”
This is a similar argument to the one used to support fluoridated water — that it is harmless. “We certainly do support the activities of communities that fluoridate,” Orgain said. “You’d think after 60 years, if there was a health concern, we would know about it.”
There is evidence that people who are exposed to excess fluoride during tooth development can develop fluorosis, which disturbs the enamel-forming cells of their teeth, preventing normal development and making teeth more vulnerable to varying degrees of decay, from mild discoloration to permanent brown and black discoloration to pitting and chipping. Orgain downplayed the impact of fluorosis: “The prevalence of people 6-39 years old [who have dental fluorosis] is about 32 percent. The vast majority is mild to very mild.”
Gary Hamlin of Dow AgroSciences said Fluoride Action Network’s allegations are baseless. “These objections are not new. EPA has evaluated [ProFume] over two years and has responded publicly to claims on many occasions. They were required by law to look at all potential human exposure [and found that] there is less than 2 percent of total fluoride exposure from ProFume. EPA has rebutted them point by point.”
Because the pesticide would be used widely, it could be difficult to avoid, even in organic products, although there are conflicting viewpoints about whether organics would be exposed to ProFume during storage. Leslie McKinnon, Texas Department of Agriculture coordinator of organic certification, said “a synthetic fumigant wouldn’t be allowed in an organic storage facility,” unless approved by the Organic Board. “A facility would have to have separate procedures to avoid prohibited substances from contaminating the organic foods. [For example] removing organic products from a facility and doing a clean down of any bins or containers …. Otherwise, the organic label is lost.”
However, Luddene Perry, author of A Field Guide to Buying Organic and an accredited organic inspector, said that much organic food is processed conventionally, so while crops may be grown organically they may be stored with conventionally grown crops that will be fumigated.
“I think consumers are much more repelled at the thought of opening a box of cereal and having bugs crawl out, than the hidden possibility of pesticide residue,” Perry said. “What we need to do is ask where our priorities lie. Do we get used to bugs in our food? If we get over our squeamishness of bugs, we might be able to get rid of a great deal of our pesticides.”