In the early 1900s, uranium-containing products were a common sight in local pharmacies. As unthinkable as it seems now, there was actually a time when this precarious material was used for its supposed healing properties. Customers, unaware of the dangers of radiation, would rub their aching joints with “healing pads” filled with low-grade uranium. Pills and potions were also sold, allowing for the quick and easy consumption of this deadly element.
Dr. C.G. Davis’ quote in the American Journal of Clinical Medicine sums up the wisdom of the time: “Radioactivity prevents insanity, rouses noble emotions, retards old age, and creates a splendid youthful joyous life.”
Rupert Blue, the U.S. Surgeon General during World War I, went as far as to strongly advocate the drinking of radium-charged water. With this in mind, it seems never a bad idea to question public opinion and its authority figures.
Today, these radioactive ointments and balms are known as “quack cures.” They are collected as novelties, symbols of a bygone era. Yet, it provides a disturbing precedent of misguided science.
The earliest studies of fluoride and its effects on humans did not occur as a precursor to its possible dental health applications. Instead, research was conducted to predict the possibility of litigation stemming from public exposure to fluorine gas through industrial accidents.
In addition to being a deadly waste product of the aluminum industry, fluoride was inextricably linked to the Manhattan Project. An important ingredient of the atomic bomb, fluoride was produced in great quantities for this purpose during the 1940s. However, working so intensely with the chemical resulted in accidental exposures to the workforce, as well as the surrounding agriculture. Military officials noticed fluoride’s adverse effects and became concerned.
A recently declassified 1944 memo to Col. Stafford L. Warren of the U.S. Engineer Office, titled, “Request for animal experimentation to determine central nervous system effects,” reads of fluoride’s harmful effects:
“Clinical evidence suggests that C616 [uranium hexafluoride] may have a rather marked central nervous system effect with mental confusion, drowsiness and lassitude as the conspicuous feature. It is most likely that the fluoride component rather than the uranium is the causative factor.”
In 1946, the University of Rochester began to study the toxic effects of fluoride because of complaints about injuries stemming from fumes in the New Jersey area. More studies would follow, all of which pointing out fluoride’s harmful toxicity, until the decision was made by the Atomic Energy Commission to silence the issue. Published findings became marred by rewording and alteration while any future studies were abruptly halted.
The race for the atomic bomb was of such importance that research ethics, as well as public safety, were swiftly ignored.
Harold Hodge, chief toxicologist at the Manhattan Project, came to a very dubious-sounding conclusion after reviewing the studies’ findings. In his letter to Col. Warren, dated May 1, 1946, he asks, “Would there be any use at making attempts to counteract the local fear of fluoride on the part of [nearby residents] through lectures on fluoride toxicology and perhaps the usefulness of fluoride in tooth health?”
This was how water fluoridation began.
Hodge was referencing a convenient set of circumstances that offered a correlation between fluoride and dental health. Years prior, scientists discovered that a small community of settlers in Colorado had brown, mottled teeth. Despite the unpleasant appearance, they found these settlers to have very few dental cavities.
After finding calcium fluoride in the community’s drinking water, while ignoring the similarly high amount of magnesium and calcium, scientists began to wonder how they could reproduce the Colorado phenomenon across the country. The plan to artificially fluoridate public drinking water was hatched by the Mellon Institute, with the first fluoridated community being Grand Rapids, Mich., on Jan. 25, 1945.
Interestingly, the science that both preceded and followed the plan to fluoridate water attained great financial backing from the aluminum industry and its lobbyists. Kettering Laboratory’s 1965 study, “The role of fluoride in public health,” for example, received funding from The Aluminum Company of America, DuPont, Kaiser Aluminum, Reynolds Metals, and US Steel, among others.
Did the aluminum companies find a new, cheap way of disposing their fluoride waste?
The Mellon Institute, a longtime defender of asbestos, can hardly be trusted as a moral authority, either. However, it was Harold Hodge who had the most questionable background.
Pulitzer Prize winner, Eileen Welsome, was the first to break the story of Hodge’s human radiation experiments of the 1940s. As described in her book, The Plutonium Files: America’s Secret Medical Experiments in the Cold War, hospital patients were unknowingly injected with plutonium under the Hodge’s watchful eye. This was the atmosphere in which water fluoridation was born from.
Forty years later, Dr. Phyllis Mullenix began work on an experiment to measure fluoride’s mental effects on rats, a study that was previously halted by the Atomic Energy Commission. The results gained so much attention that Mullenix was fired from her post at the Colgate sponsored Forsyth Institute.
Speaking at Clark University in Worchester, Mass., Mullenix explains, “They were afraid their money from the national institute of dental research would be taken away if I presented this information.”
Describing her findings, she said, “There was no question that [the rats’] behavior was vulnerable to fluoride. Whether they were prenatal or early postnatal, all they needed was two or three days exposure to this and it caused a permanent change in behavior when the animals grew up.”
She also spoke of how the effects of fluoride vary with age. “If you were prenatally exposed, it was hyperactivity. If you were exposed as adults we call it the couch potato effect, hypo active and very slow,” said Mullenix. “Also we found that the fluoride accumulated in the brain and this is very different than what the literature said before.”
Since her study, other health officials have made their anti-fluoride findings public. Health problems associated with fluoride overdose, such as dental and skeletal fluorosis [the mottling and staining of teeth], have recently been on the rise. Her study’s results even mirrored those of a Chinese experiment that found fluoride-exposed children to have lower IQs than normal.
With fluoride now being injected into certain foods and beverages, even baby formula, dental fluorosis will only become more and more common. Dr. Elizabeth Cullen, Honorary Secretary of the Irish Doctors’ Environmental Association (IDEA), expresses her worry over such uncontrolled, indiscriminate fluoride dosages:
“The same dosage is given to people with poor kidney function, who are sick, very young or elderly, and regardless of other sources of fluoride in their diet and from toothpaste, mouthwashes.”
Cullen rightly points out that fluoride is the only drug that’s dosage is determined by thirst.
There has been a wind of change blowing throughout the world, however, with new countries voting against water fluoridation every year. Even in Canada, most of Quebec and British Colombia have remained un-fluoridated, though still keeping pace with national cavity statistics.
Will water fluoridation ever become a distant memory that shares the same sad legacy as asbestos, leaded gasoline and paint and DDT?