WHEN THE TOPIC of fluoridation comes up, most people laugh at the poor unfortunate people who still think fluoridation is harmful. But most people don’t know about the seriousness of fluoride air pollution. In places like the Bay Area (San Francisco), where the air we breathe is fluoridated, it may not be a good idea to add fluoride to the water supply.
Fluoride is an extremely toxic ion; near sources of fluoride air pollution, vegetation is destroyed, animals get sick and die, and people suffer eye irritation, respiratory problems, or more serious symptoms of fluoride poisoning. But fluoride can be dangerous even in very tiny amounts, because many plants and animals accumulate the ion in their tissues. Over several months or years, even the faintest measurable traces of fluoride can add up and cause harmful effects.
As a pollutant, fluoride has sufficiently severe effects, and is widespread enough, that the American Association for the Advancement of Science named fluoride the third most serious air pollutant in the country, (after SO2 and ozone) in December 1966. More than fifty kinds of industries – including those producing aluminum, steel, phosphate, oil, brick, and glass – use raw materials containing fluorides or add fluorides to their products during processing. Coal, which is burned in massive amounts to provide electric power and heat, contains many fluoride impurities that are released to the atmosphere by burning.
In spite of its serious nature, fluoride pollution has received very little attention in the mass media, although the public has heard a lot about SO2 and car exhaust.
Records of fluoride air pollution go all the way back to 1100 A.D., when a volcanic eruption in Iceland caused a crippling disease in sheep. The disease, which appeared every time the volcano erupted, was identified more than 800 years later as fluorosis, or fluoride poisoning, and traced to high levels of fluorides in volcanic gases.
The sheep got an overdose of fluoride in several ways; fluoride entered the bloodstream through the lungs, was absorbed and concentrated in the grass the sheep grazed on, and was present in the water as a result of the volcanic activity.
The teeth of fluoride-poisoned sheep became discolored and brittle, and their bones developed out-growths and deformations that made movement painful or impossible. Unable to eat or move around, most of the sheep died of starvation or thirst.
Industrial smokestacks, the manmade equivalents of volcanoes, have been held responsible for fluoride damage repeatedly since the early 1900?s. The aluminum industry, which uses about 65 pounds of fluoride to produce a ton of metal, is a repeated offender.
Aluminum and Fertilizer Industries Offend
In Troutdale, Oregon, Reynolds Metals Co. has been successfully sued for damages to crops, cattle, and human beings. In the course of one such trial, it was revealed that the plant passed nearly two tons of fluorides into the air each day. Seven other aluminum companies joined with Reynolds in an attempt to overturn the court’s decision, arguing that it was impossible to produce aluminum without emitting quantities of fluorides into the air. The companies lost their suit in the Ninth District Court of Appeals.
Another major source of fluoride pollution is the phosphate industry. Phosphate rock, which is the major source of phosphorus, phosphoric acid, and phosphate fertilizer, is three to five per cent fluoride. In Florida’s Polk and Hillsborough Counties, seventeen plants are clustered around rich deposits of phosphate rock. Fumes from these plants have destroyed 25,000 acres of citrus trees, and damaged vegetation for fifty miles in all directions. Cattle in Polk County have suffered from fluorosis and died, and people have been afflicted with sore throats, burning eyes, nosebleeds and respiratory problems. Millions of dollars in damage suits have been filed against phosphate plants.
Fluoride has been implicated in several major smog disasters, such as the one that claimed twenty lives in Donora, Pa., in 1948. The town of Donora hired an investigator to determine the cause; he found evidence of acute fluorosis in all the deceased. Many herbivorous animals and most of the residents of the valley showed signs of chronic fluoride poisoning, including discolored teeth. Crops and inanimate objects also appeared to have been damaged by extreme levels of fluoride.
In the Bay Area too, fluoride air pollution is a problem. In 1962, two Contra Costa County cattle ranchers sued four chemical plants for damages to their herds. That same year, a report titled “Survey of Fluoride Sources in the Bay Area Pollution Control District” named 25 major plants with potential fluoride pollution problems, and termed San Jose “a city with known fluoride problem areas.” The BAPCD’s 1968 booklet, Air Pollution and the San Francisco Bay Area, takes special note of fluorides, “which pose a threat to both plants and animals.”
The industries named as potential fluoride sources include several brick, ceramic, and tile factories, cement plants, the Standard Oil of California refinery in Richmond, the FMC phosphate plant across the Dumbarton Bridge in Newark, Pacific States Steel in Union City, Owens-Illinois Glass in Hayward, and Owens-Corning Fiberglas in Santa Clara.
Several plants that were not important in 1962 are of special interest today. The General Electric Atomic Power Equipment Plant at San Jose converts uranium hexafluoride into nuclear fuel for the AEC by driving off the six fluoride atoms. The Lockheed Missiles Space Co. in Sunnyvale operates a beryllium refinery, which is a potential fluoride source; Lockheed also has a rocket-testing center in the Santa Cruz mountains where liquid fluorine is burned with liquid hydrogen in experiments to develop a fuel to propel men to the moon. A more down-to-earth result of this combustion is the release of huge quantities of hydrogen fluoride, a very powerful acid, into the air.
Milton Feldstein, head of the BAPCD Technical Division, assured the Observer that there is no problem with fluoride pollution in the Bay Area, although he could not name any specific steps that had been taken to remedy the problems that had existed in 1962. He reported an extremely low level of airborne fluoride in San Jose, but admitted that the single air-sampling station in the city is upwind of potential fluoride sources. Feldstein agreed that even at the low concentration he reported, plants could accumulate enough fluorides to give potentially harmful doses to animals or people that ate a lot of them.
I asked Feldstein if any particular local industries, such as the glass industry, emitted significant amounts of fluorides. He hastily informed me that Owens-Corning Fiberglas is known not to be emitting fluorides.
Owens-Corning Fiberglas is being sued for $1 million for polluting the air: the BAPCD has refused to release information on the contents of the plant’s emissions, on the grounds that it might “infringe upon the company’s patent rights.”
Censorship of Fluoride Pollution News
Like the BAPCD, the news media have been very reluctant to embarrass industries by discussing fluoride pollution, both locally and nationally. For example, the town of Garrison, Montana, struggled for years to stop the Rocky Mountain Phosphate Co. from pouring huge volumes of fluorides into the air. Vegetation was wiped out for miles around the town, cattle were crippled and killed, and people were made so ill that many were literally driven out of their homes. Although many papers carried accounts of the town’s problems, very few named the pollutant that was the scourge of Garrison.
After the smog disaster in Donora, Pa., a report blaming the deaths on fluoride appeared in Chemical and Engineering News, a trade publication of the chemical industry. But U.S. Steel protested loudly that their Donora plant was not emitting excessive amounts of fluoride, and asked the U.S. Public Health Service to reopen the investigation. Two months later, the PHS published an “official” report, stating only that a mixture of gases had been responsible for the deaths.
Shortly after it began promoting the fluoridation of water supplies, the USPHS stopped reporting levels of airborne fluorides. This silence continued until 1968, when pressure from a congressman (Rep. Ottinger of N.Y.) persuaded the USPHS to resume reports on fluorides.
From 1953 to 1957, the National Air Sampling Network reported on 31 major pollutants, including fluoride. From 1957 to 1968, only 20 were reported; fluoride was one of the omissions, in spite of the fact that during that period fluoride was responsible for more damage claims against industry than all twenty of the others combined.
Most Expensive Pollutant
Why has one of the most serious of all air pollutants been so conspicuously absent from most public information on smog that few people are even aware that fluoride pollution exists? Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that fluoride is potentially the most expensive pollutant industry has to deal with.
The industries with major fluoride pollution problems represent some of the most powerful interest groups in the country. Few competitive newspapers and magazines can afford to risk the loss of advertising revenue that might occur if such publications were to embarrass major industries with alarming stories about pollution; such stories might induce people to sue for damages, or result in pressures for tougher anti-pollution laws.
When the Harvey Aluminum Co., in The Dalles, Oregon, was sued for $2.2 million by local fruit growers, the plant was served with a court order to control its pollution. The company appealed the order, arguing that it would cost $15 million for effective fluoride pollution control equipment, and 100 new employees would be needed to keep the equipment functioning. Multiply an average cost of several million dollars by the huge number of plants emitting fluorides, and it is apparent that it would cost industry several billion dollars to eliminate fluoride pollution. The amounts paid out in damages each year are just peanuts compared to that cost.
Pollution hurts industry in other ways too; the government of Middlesex County, N.J., refused to approve the application of an aluminum reduction plant that wanted to locate there. Why? The government was not convinced that the plant could control its fluoride emission, which would have further poisoned the air of an already heavily industrialized area.
In a highly competitive economic system, many companies will fight for their very lives to avoid spending large amounts of money to control pollution. When plants are required to keep fluoride out of the air, they take the next cheapest route and dump it into the water. For example, at the G.E. Atomic Power Equipment Plant in San Jose, gaseous fluoride is passed through “scrubbers,” which trap most of the fluorides in liquid solutions; these liquid wastes are then released into a sewer.
If neither the air nor the water could be used for fluoride disposal, what would industry do with its fluoride wastes? They might have to be buried in the desert, like San Francisco garbage. Some pollutants, such as S02, can be reclaimed and sold at a profit; but, before fluoridation, there was no use at all for fluoride wastes. Even with half the country fluoridated, the demand for fluorides is infinitesimal compared with the supply.
The question of fluoridation should be carefully evaluated in reference to what is known about fluoride pollution. Fluoride is added to water supplies, in amounts far larger than concentrations which are known to be harmful in air, in order to reduce cavities in children’s teeth.
Many people might be puzzled by this apparent contradiction: fluoride in the air is a dangerous pollutant, but much more fluoride in the water is a beneficial additive. (From a medical standpoint, one fluoride ion behaves exactly like any other fluoride ion; once it gets into your system, the source makes no difference at all.)
The Public Health Service and the dental and medical professions have been supporting fluoridation for 17 years, and all of them assure us that it is perfectly safe. Yet it is possible that when all the sources are added up, people in some parts of the country may be consuming harmful doses of fluoride. Fluoride from industrial pollution is present in many foods and in the air we breathe, and these amounts of fluoride should be measured before more is added to our diets. According to Dr. Emmanuel Landau, Chief Statistical Advisor to the Federal Air Pollution Control Center, such a study on people’s total exposure to fluoride has never been done.
Because of the virtual blackout on mention of fluoride as a pollutant, many medical experts and public health officials are unaware of the seriousness of fluoride pollution. Professor Lewis Aronow of the Dept. of Pharmacology, Stanford School of Medicine, who is an enthusiastic supporter of fluoridation, has carefully evaluated the medical evidence on potential hazards of fluoridation. Dr. Aronow told me that he has never heard of a single case of injury from fluoride pollution in this country. It is quite possible that many other supporters of fluoridation are equally uninformed.
In localities where fluoride pollution exists, some people may be consuming fluorides in doses large enough that adding fluoride to the drinking water would result in giving many people harmful doses. Until problems such as this have been thoroughly evaluated, it might be a good idea to find methods other than fluoridation to prevent cavities.
(The author, Edward (Ned) Groth III, went on to serve as Director of Technical Policy and Public Service at Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports magazine)