I grew up on fluoride toothpaste, diligently brushing my teeth after every meal. So I was resistant to any suggestion that there may be a problem with fluoride. Countless commercials drummed in the claim that it fights cavities, and if anything to the contrary caught my eye, I dismissed it as mere ranting and raving. I remembered my husband’s story of sitting down in a Connecticut dentist’s chair in 1963. He opened his filling-free mouth and the dentist said, “Pasadena.’ (Apparently it was one of the first cities to fluoridate its water supply.) When I bought a Brita water-filtering pitcher, I even called the company to ask if it removed fluoride and was reassured to hear that it did not. I wanted to make sure my daughter got every benefit. After all, would our government put something in the water that wasn’t good for us?
Take a look at the small print on your toothpaste tube. “Warning: Keep out of the reach of children under 6 years of age. If you accidentally swallow more than used for brushing, seek professional help or contact a Poi- son Control Center immediately.” Poison? “Contrary to its public image as a benign substance used solely to reduce tooth decay, fluoride is extremely corrosive, more toxic than lead and just slightly less toxic than arsenic,” says Jeff Green, director of Citizens For Safe Drinking Water. Sodium fluoride, the active ingredient in most brands, was originally sold as a rat poison. If your three-year-old suddenly took it into his head to eat half a tube of the toothpaste casually left out on the sink, it could kill him.
Meanwhile, we’re swallowing more fluoride each day with every glass of water. Since 1945, when fluoride was first put into the municipal water system in Newburgh, New York, more than 60% of the United States water supply has been fluoridated and the government is pushing for 75% by 2ooo. But now it turns out that the whole premise behind the fluoridation crusade may be wrong. After World War II, the rise in the standard of living meant better nutrition, which resulted in a universal decline in tooth decay. Rates have dropped in Western Europe, which is 98% unfluoridated, just as much as in the United States.
Other countries are taking a good, long look at fluoride. Sweden abandoned fluoridation on the recommendation of a special Fluoride Commission. Denmark, Holland, Finland, France, Germany and Japan have also rejected it, citing public health concerns. Plans to make fluoridation mandatory in Britain were suspended in 1998 after the British Home Secretary intervened and urged the Health Secretary to review the negative evidence.
The benefits of fluoridation may have been exaggerated. Data collected in the largest survey to date–of over 39,ooo American schoolchildren ages 5 to 17 in 84 communities, sponsored in 1986 by the U.S. Public Health Service-had to be dragged into the pubic domain through the Freedom of Information Act because it did not support the official mandate. Instead, it showed that children living in fluoridated areas had tooth decay rates nearly identical with those who live in fluoridated areas.
But there is one significant difference, as a comparison study of children living in fluoridated Newburgh and unfluoridated Kingston, N.Y. illustrated. The Newburgh children had about twice the incidence of dental fluorosis-an irreversible condition where the teeth are mottled with white spots that typically turn brown. As Dr. David Kennedy, dentist and past president of the International Academy of Oral Medicine & Toxicology, explains, “The cells that produce the collagen matrix, which forms enamel, are poisoned to the point that they can no longer produce opalescent pearl-like enamel. Fluorotic enamel is irregular in texture porous, chalky white to brown in color, and brittle. In severe cases, the enamel forms incompletely and corners easily break off the teeth.”
Even proponents of fluoridation acknowledge that fluorosis increases with the level of fluoride in the water. Currently, an estimated 22% of American children, exhibit the symptoms. “This is not just a cosmetic flaw,” says Green. “It’s proof of the fact that the body has been overdosed with fluoride and has not been able to handle it.” Kennedy continues, “Let’s be clear about what children will be adversely affected. Bottle-fed babies [whose formula is made with fluoridated water] are most likely to develop dental fluorosis. Mother’s milk has virtually no fluoride present. Those children who are deficient in intake of protein, calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, and vitamin C are especially vulnerable to fluoride poisoning. The accumulation of fluoride is greatly increased if the person has impaired kidney function. In short, the weakest members of our society, the undernourished, the underfed, the very children that fluoridation was to allegedly benefit. In some poorer communities, as much as 80% of the children have fluorosis.”
But don’t assume that if your child is healthy and well-nourished, he or she runs no risk. Go back to that toothpaste and read the directions-“Children 2 to 6 years: To minimize swallowing use a pea-sized amount and supervise brushing and rinsing until good habits are established.” Tempted by bubble-gum flavors and artificial sweeteners, a child can easily ingest more than the recommended amount. Studies show that children under four inadvertently swallow between 50% and 1o0% of the toothpaste they put in their mouths, simply because they lack a fully developed gag reflex.
Dental fluorosis is just the first, visible evidence of much more serious changes in the body. When fluoride accumulates at high concentrations in the bones, they become weak and brittle. Victims of this debilitating condition, called skeletal fluorosis can only hobble forward, stiff and hunched. The osteoarthritis that afflicts many people in this country may actually be a misdiagnosed stage of skeletal fluorosis. Recent studies have linked fluoride to increased incidence of hip fractures, damage to the central nervous system, and cancer. In China, researchers correlated dental fluorosis with a 10-point reduction in I.Q. Low levels of fluoride in the drinking water of test animals produced pathological changes in the brain similar to those in humans with Alzheimer’s disease. Another study demonstrated how fluoride interferes with the brain’s pineal gland and inhibits its production of melatonin, which helps regulate the body’s internal dock. In test animals, this provoked an earlier onset of puberty – an effect the Newburgh/Kingston study reported in humans as well.
Scientists who have spoken out against fluoride risk censure by the medical establishment and can forfeit their careers. In 1995 when Dr. Phyllis Mullenix, lecturer in radiation oncology at Harvard Medical School and head of the toxicology department at the Forsyth [Dental] Research Institute, published a paper showing that fluoride accumulated in certain areas of the brain and affected animal behavior, creating what in humans we would call hyperactivity or attention deficit disorder, she was fired from her job. In 1990, Dr. William Marcus, chief toxicologist for the EPA’s Office of Drinking Water, was disturbed to find data from a study reporting specific fluoride-related cancers altered or omitted in the final National Toxicology Program report. When he demanded an independent review of the raw data, he was fired Later, an investigation by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee corroborated his charges and produced evidence that government scientists had been pressured to portray fluoride more positively.
Like most laymen, I had no idea what fluoride actually is. It turns out the term is used to cover a whole range of substances containing the element fluorine. Because fluorine is the most negatively charged and interactive element of all, it bonds with practically everything and does not exist separately in nature, despite its rank as the 13th most abundant element in the earth’s crust. But most of it stays buried there, unless it is mined and brought to the surface, or created as a by-product of various manufacturing processes.
“It’s kind of a bully,” says Green, explaining the actions of the free fluoride ion that constitutes fluorine. “It aggressively seeks out other electrons and is prized for its ability to disrupt and reconfigure other molecular bonds. One reason people have been reluctant to expose the problems of fluoride is that it cuts across so many industries. In its various forms, fluoride is used to etch glass, ceramics and computer chips;’ refine petroleum products; separate out heavy metal; and power rockets. Our air is contaminated by fluoride emissions from the production of iron, steel, copper, aluminum and plastics. Fluoride is one of the world’s most widely used pesticides. If you walk past a house tented for termites, they’re probably spraying sulfuryl fluoride (Vikane) to kill the bugs.
Fluoride is also very important to the pharmaceutical industry. It inhibits enzyme activity. It’s the primary ingredient in Prozac. If you go in for surgery, you’ll usually be given a fluoride-based anesthetic, because fluoride is virulent enough to throw you into an immediate coma. Hydrogen fluoride is the only toxic element in the nerve gas Sarin (rated 1500 times more poisonous than cyanide) used by terrorists in the Japanese subway attack.”
So how in the world did this dangerous substance get into our water? Fluoride is not an essential nutrient, as even the report of the committee on Dietary Reference Intakes-convened under the auspices of the Institute of Health at the National Academy of Sciences-admits, but then it goes on to recommend specific daily allowances “because of its valuable effects on dental health.” This claim that fluoride reduces tooth decay is how the government justifies fluoridating the water supply, but don’t assume that the fluoride added to our drinking water is somehow pharmaceutical or food-grade. In fact, the first fluoride compound purposely put in the public water was sodium fluoride, a toxic by-product of the aluminum industry.
During World War II, as Alcoa accelerated production to meet the need for more warplanes, they produced more of this pollutant and faced mounting damage claims. Eager to put a positive spin on fluoride, the U.S. Public Health Service-then under the command of Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, a founder and major stockholder of Alcoa-sent a dentist in its employ out West to investigate certain towns where fluoride occurs naturally in the water. (Water running over fluorspar rocks produces calcium fluoride, which is hailed as “natural” even though it has the same harmful effects as any other fluoride.) This dentist observed that the inhabitants had fewer cavities than average-although they also had stained and eroded teeth. In 1939, a scientist funded by Alcoa solved the disposal problem when he proposed adding fluoride to drinking water to reduce tooth decay.
Then in the 1940s the unimpeded production of fluoride became a matter of national security-fluoride was the key substance used to separate the uranium isotope to build the atomic bomb. Millions of tons of fluoride were required. In 1944, according to declassified documents, an accident at a duPont plant in New Jersey producing fluoride for the Manhattan Project released large quantities into the atmosphere. Crops were poisoned, animals were crippled, people were sickened. The fluoride even etched windows in the local school. Scientists scrambled to gloss over the adverse effects in the interests of the war effort. Defense contractors and the government needed to create public support for fluoride and protect themselves from liability as well. How can you pinpoint where your exposure to a toxic chemical occurred if it is also in the water you drink? The theory that fluoride reduces tooth decay was heaven-sent.
When the fluoridation campaign began, it was determined that the optimal dose was 1 milligram per day, which translates to 1 part per million (ppm) in the water supply (assuming an individual drinks 1 liter of water a day). Officials concurred that concentrations of 2 ppm would not be acceptable because that would produce too many cases of dental fluorosis. But over the decades the maximum allowable contaminant level (fluoride is classified as a contaminant by the EPA), inched up to 2.4 ppm. Then in 1985 when the EPA increased the allowance to 4 ppm, something unprecedented occurred. The union representing employees at EPA headquarters in Washington D.C.-some 1500 scientists, engineers and other professionals-revolted against their own management and filed an amicus curiae brief in court to support a lawsuit brought by the National Resources Defense Council against the EPA. As the brief stated, in their professional opinion, allowable fluoride levels should have been reduced rather than, raised. Instead, they alleged that evidence of adverse effects was manipulated or ignored in order to arrive at a preordained political conclusion.
Corporations have a lot invested in fluoridation which allows them to dispose of industrial pollution via dilution. “Today, the most common product used for fluoridation is hydrofluosilicic: acid, which is not a natural substance but a waste product coming straight from the scrubbers of the phosphate fertilizer industry,” says Green. “When phosphate is mined, they have to get rid of the attached fluorine or it would kill the plants. So they put the phosphate through a sulfuric acid wash to separate the fluorine out into what is called a hazardous waste liquor. The fluorine is captured by a scrubber system since they can’t let it go out into the air because it would kill all the plants and animals around. If they had to dispose of this liquor as hazardous industrial waste, it would cost them $1.40 a gallon or more neutralize it–depending on how much cadmium, lead, uranium, and arsenic are also present. They don’t want to pay that, so instead they call it a product and we pay them approximately 3 cents a gallon to dump in our water.”
It seems contemptible, but corporations are only taking advantage of the delusion that this is good for us. Remember, back in the 1950’s, chemicals were going to save the world and you could put your foot under a fluoroscope at the shoe store and get irradiated. “When I re-examined the classic fluoridation studies, which had been presented to me in the text books during my training, I found, as others had before me, that they also contained serious flaws,” says Dr. John Colquhoun, former chief dental officer for Auckland, New Zealand, who did an about-face on fluoride. “I do not believe that the selection and bias that apparently occurred were necessarily deliberate. Enthusiasts for a theory can fool themselves and others that their activities are genuinely scientific.”
So now we have fluoride in our water, which means we’re mass-medicating the population although we can’t control the dose, because everyone drinks varying amounts. Back when safety levels were set at 1 ppm, there was basically no other source. Since then, fluoride has been added to toothpaste, mouth rinses, and dental floss. Dentists treat the teeth topically with fluoride and doctors prescribe fluoride supplements. And of course, if fluoride is in the water it’s in the food chain. Food is irrigated with fluoridated water, washed with fluoridated water, and processed with fluoridated water, so we’re consuming much more fluoride than we think. Independent lab reports show high levels in common products: .98 to 1.2 ppm in Coca-Cola, 1 ppm in Minute Maid orange juice, 2.1 ppm in Fruit Loops, 10 ppm in Wheaties, 6.8 ppm in Gerber’s white grape juice which is often used as a sweetener in baby foods. (Grapes are commonly sprayed with an insecticide that contains fluoride, and a 1996 study published in the journal of the American Dental Association warned parents to limit their children’s intake of juices due to excessive fluoride content.) In fact, according to a 1993 government survey, children in non-fluoridated communities are already receiving at least 3 times the amount of fluoride recommended for total consumption, while children in fluoridated communities are receiving 4.6 to 7 times the recommended amount.
What will happen when the first generation of fluoride-fed children turns 70, after accumulating this poison over a lifetime in their bones? Cavities are not life-threatening Fluoridation comes with real risks and negligible benefits. Even if you believe in the value of fluoride, I don’t think you should be allowed to use our drinking water as a delivery system. A lot of people consider Vitamin C beneficial, but so far it doesn’t pour out of the tap. Water is our most precious resource and we have no business adding anything to it, other than what’s necessary to make it safe to drink. It is our responsibility to maintain this gift, as pure and pristine as possible, for each and every person to enjoy.