When it comes to herbicides, preservatives and other chemicals, the public can be mighty choosy about what it allows in its food and drink. Except, that is, when it comes to putting fluorides in its drinking water. Half the American population and hundreds of millions more people around the world now quiescently accept the presence of the chemical fluoride in their water.

There is a growing possibility that perhaps people ought not to be so complacent. It is time that people who question fluoridation of water — which is not the same as getting a fluoride treatment from the dentist — no longer be automatically treated like right-wing nuts and that fluoridation be treated as a scientific issue.

Those now concerned about fluoridation bear no resemblance to the political extremists who fought it decades ago. In addition to reputable scientists, the union representing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s professional employees sought to join a Natural Resources Defense Council suit charging that the agency had ignored scientific evidence of adverse health effects when it set a remarkably high fluoride limit in drinking water.

A strong case for reopening the fluoridation debate was made in a 17-page special report in the Aug. 1 issue of Chemical & Engineering News, a magazine of the American Chemical Society, the largest association of scientists in the nation. The report, by associate editor Bette Hileman, raises serious questions about whether the normal standards of scientific scrutiny were bypassed in the rush to fluoridate the nation’s drinking water.

While studies have shown that tooth decay has fallen dramatically in cities that fluoridate their water, other studies now indicate that the reduction of tooth decay in cities without fluoridation may be as great. Originally, it was thought decay was prevented by a process in which fluoride entered tooth enamel through the blood stream from drinking water. Now, however, some scientists believe that fluoride in saliva and plaque may be just as important in preventing tooth decay. That means that fluoride provided in tooth paste and mouthwash might be just as effective as fluoride in drinking water.

That is an important distinction if it is discovered that fluoridated drinking water threatens health, as some scientists suspect. Among these suspected risks are damage to teeth and bones (fluorosis), kidney disease, hypersensitivity, enzyme and mutagenic effects, birth defects and cancer. The risks have not been proven, but too little research has been done to dismiss them.

Calling for another look at the benefits and risks of fluoridation will inevitably generate a wave of angry responses from the professional organizations that favor fluoridation. But the anger shouldn’t be one-sided. Extensive studies into the effectiveness and health risks of fluoridation were short-stopped by the wave of pro-fluoridation sentiment. No studies, for example, were conducted on how malnourished infants and children are affected, despite warnings of risk.

We are not suggesting that fluoridation programs be halted. We are insisting, though, that the same scientific rigor be applied to fluoridation as to everything else that is put into everyone’s food and drink.