Back in 1964, when the fictional General Ripper launched World War Three
because he was convinced the Commies were polluting his precious bodily
fluids, opposition to water fluoridation was generally considered the
exclusive province of right-wing wackos.
More than 40 years later, the anti-fluoride forces are still on the
march–but they’re a lot different. They’re more likely to be left-wingers
(including a large contingent of environmentalists) than right-wingers. And
it’s increasingly difficult to dismiss them as crackpots.
Fluoridation is back on the front burner again in Oregon because of a
bill–HB 2025–now before the state legislature. HB 2025 would require all
cities in the state with populations of 10,000 or more to fluoridate their
drinking water. Way back in 1956, Bend passed a local ordinance prohibiting
water fluoridation. Presumably that law would be tossed out if HB 2025 passes.
Water fluoridation in America got its start back in 1945 (General Ripper
was a bit off on his date) after dentists noticed that children living in
areas with naturally high levels of fluoride in the drinking water tended
to have fewer cavities. Fluoridation was quickly embraced by such august
bodies as the U.S. Public Health Service, the American Dental Association
and the American Medical Association, and it soon became the conventional
wisdom that the practice was effective and harmless.
But a dedicated minority has always refused to buy into the conventional
wisdom, and over the decades they’ve built up an impressive mass of
arguments and evidence to challenge it.
Fluoridation of water, they say, has not been proven effective at reducing
cavities. Fluoride, they point out, is a toxic substance–a byproduct of
fertilizer manufacturing–that in sufficient doses can produce ill effects
ranging from discoloration of teeth to crippling bone damage to sudden
death. Environmentalist critics–including the Sierra Club, which is
opposing HB 2025–say fluoride in water is harmful to salmon and other fish.
Finally, the critics argue that fluoridation amounts to compulsory
medication and violates people’s fundamental right to control what goes
into their own bodies.
John MacArthur of Bend, a professional science writer and fluoridation
opponent, laughs at the notion that fluoridation is a Communist plot. “It’s
really more of a capitalist ploy,” he says.
Like other foes of fluoridation, MacArthur subscribes to a complex
conspiracy theory according to which the practice was promoted as a way for
industries to dispose of a toxic by-product–and actually make money doing it.
Lynne Campbell, director of the anti-fluoride group Oregonians for Safe
Drinking Water, advances a variation of the theory: Fluoridation, she says,
came about through “collusion between powerful industries who quite frankly
wanted to be protected against litigation from fluoride- damaged workers or
people living around [their] plants who were damaged by fluoride. If people
believed that fluoride in the drinking water was safe for children, it
would be very difficult for anyone to litigate against them.”
The theory that corporate fat cats, federal bureaucrats and officials of
the AMA and ADA all got together in a smoke-filled room in the mid-1940s
and concocted a plot to poison America might be a tough sell. But it’s not
so easy to dismiss the evidence opponents produce to challenge fluoride’s
It’s been known for decades that exposure to significant amounts of
fluoride in drinking water produces fluorosis–discoloration and sometimes
deterioration of tooth enamel. Larger doses can produce skeletal fluorosis,
a serious, potentially crippling disease in which the calcium in bones is
replaced by fluorine and the bones become crumbly.
A 1988 article in Chemical & Engineering News noted that only a dozen cases
of skeletal fluorosis had been reported in the United States, but went on
to say critics “speculate that there probably have been many more cases of
fluorosis–even crippling fluorosis … because most doctors in the U.S.
have not studied the disease and do not know how to diagnose it.”
Campbell of Oregonians for Safe Drinking Water endorses that viewpoint:
“The teeth are part of the skeleton, and the skeleton is the primary
recipient of the fluoride that’s ingested into the body. Our physicians
only know skeletal fluorosis in its crippling end stages.” The early stages
of the disease mimic arthritis, she said.
According to Campbell and other critics, research also has linked fluoride
to hypothyroidism (under-activity of the thyroid gland), osteoporosis (a
disease in which bones become brittle) and osteosarcoma (bone cancer),
among other serious illnesses.
The critics, including some dentists, also question whether fluoride in
drinking water really prevents tooth decay.
Dr. Tad Hodgert, a Bend dentist, said fluoride treatments applied directly
to the teeth are effective, but it’s pointless to dose the whole body with
the stuff. “It’s wonderful topically; it makes no sense systemically,” he said.
Also, he added, “The people that need the fluoride on their teeth the
most”–children–“don’t drink water; they’re drinking soda pop.”
A fluoride dose of 1 part per million (ppm) in drinking water is considered
“safe,” but fluoridation critics point out that children and adults already
are absorbing substantial doses of the chemical from foods and beverages.
“There is no way to monitor the dose that [children] are getting,” Campbell
said. She pointed out that high levels of fluoride commonly occur in
“mechanically separated chicken products” such as chicken strips and in
fruit juices. Gerber’s white grape juice can contain up to 6.8 ppm of
fluoride, she said: “That is a full seven-day prescription dose of fluoride
in one cup of juice.”
“The gist of it is fluoride is an extremely active ion, a molecule, and has
a lot of physiological effects involving multiple organ systems of the
body,” said Dr. Nicholas Denel, a cardiologist in Medford. “The original
studies looked primarily just at the particular issue of dental caries
[cavities] and fluorosis. Over the past 50 years there is an enormous
amount of medical literature … that points to the widespread and diffuse
effects of fluoride on the human body.
“My concern … is that the proponents of fluoride–I think they’re all
well-meaning, their hearts are in the right place–however, fluoride is so
reactive and there’s so much literature suggesting possible detrimental
effects [that] I think it is misguided to dose entire cities, thousands or
millions of citizens, with a very active compound when we don’t know the
full effect of fluoride on the body.”
Denel also challenges the premise of mass-medicating communities through
their drinking water on ethical grounds. High blood pressure and high
cholesterol are far worse health problems than tooth decay, he argues, so
why not put blood pressure-reducing and cholesterol-lowering medications in
“We would never think of doing that,” he said. “Something like that runs
against all tenets of medical ethics.”
He and other fluoride critics also point out that the conventional wisdom
about medical and health issues has often been wrong before. Not too long
ago, they note, asbestos was considered harmless, it was okay to put lead
in gasoline and paint, and nobody thought tobacco caused cancer.
“There are many, many examples of when large organizations have made
terrible errors in judgment,” Denel said. For example, 10 years ago
cardiologists were recommending that menopausal women take estrogen
replacement therapy to reduce the incidence of heart attacks and strokes.
But later studies showed such treatment actually increased the risk of
heart attacks and blood clots.
“I am aghast that so many well-meaning people can ignore the mistakes that
we as a society have made,” Denel said.
“The [Bend] Bulletin editorial [supporting fluoridation] compared fluoride
to a vaccine,” said John MacArthur. “Imagine the reaction of people if we
put a vaccine in our water. A vaccine is an individual treatment for a
The tactic of depicting fluoridation opponents as paranoid nut cases has
been SOP from the beginning, he said: “That’s a smokescreen against talking
about the reality. … My feeling is Bend ought to be proud of its
anti-fluoride law. We did it in 1956–we were ahead of the world.”
For Deborah Burke, another Bend fluoridation opponent, it all boils down to
a simple matter of human rights.
“I’m a nutrition counselor, and it was disturbing to think we were going to
put it in the water without anybody’s consensus,” she said. “I just believe
people should have a choice over what they take into their own bodies.”