It is said a little knowledge is dangerous. We would add to that a little scientific knowledge is more dangerous and a little scientific knowledge coupled with blinding, activist zeal is more dangerous still. Witness the latest local offensive: to save Boulder from fluoride in our drinking water.
The Clean Drinking Water (CDW) initiative as successfully placed on the November ballot an initiative that would prevent “medications” from being added by the city to the public drinking water supply, along with “contaminants” in concentrations above those recommended by the EPA.
Specifically, the initiative’s organizers are concerned – though their petition doesn’t mention this specifically – with the additive hydrofluorosilicic acid (HFS), which the city uses in lieu of medical grade fluoride to fluoridate its drinking water.
The chemical forms the fluorine Boulder uses to fluoridate its drinking water. It has trace elements of arsenic and lead in it – incredibly minute elements (0.0002 percent lead by weight up to a maximum of 0.020 percent lead, and a typical concentration of 0.0035 percent arsenic). The fluorine content adds up about one part per million fluoridation – well within federal standards and Boulder’s standards, which were established in 1969.
The verdict on fluoridating water is mixed. It is endorsed by both the American Dental Association and the American Medical Association.
The studies run about half and half on its benefits (fighting cavities across socioeconomic levels) vs. its negatives (claims varying from softening of bone and tooth enamel to an increase of bone cancer, arthritis and genetic damage), depending on whom you trust and what your agenda is.
CWA’s 12-point “fact” sheet claims “fluoride is more toxic than lead and slightly less toxic than arsenic,” and that it’s harmful to infants if placed in drinking water-based formula.
It also claims Boulder is already over-fluoridated, as the chemical is present in “toothpastes, foods and drinks processed in fluoridated areas and in pesticides residue on fruits, vegetables and grains.”
Okay. We’re not doctors. We’re not chemists, researchers or health experts (and neither are CWA members, it should be noted). We’re not shills for the fluoride manufacturers or dentists. But despite all this, we find this campaign a little curious.
For one thing, it’s been a staple of right-wing conspiracy nuts for years that fluoride is some kind of commie, mind-control, leftist plot. Secondly, the National Cancer Institute doesn’t appear alarmed by it, and the NCI isn’t known as for being shy about pointing out real or imagined carcinogens.
Thirdly, Boulder is known for buying into a kind of counter-culture conventional wisdom on public health even in the face of rationality, fact and research.
For example, our community is one of the worst in the nation for having its infants vaccinated and one of the nation’s ground zeroes for advancing the theory – now widely discredited – that vaccines used over the last 20 years are to blame for increased rates of autism.
Adding fluoride to the list of public health frights is the latest challenge to our community’s values of public health and its understanding of science. We don’t care how you vote on the initiative, but we would like to see people read, study and analyze the issue carefully.
Then, we’d like to see a debate on the issue that’s based on real scientific findings and hard data compiled by reputable sources, not on Web sites run by the hysterical or the corporate.
If the record on fluoride is mixed, fine, let’s talk about that, openly, and make a rational decision as a community. But we can’t help pointing out that the tendency, when activists get into science, to turn “links” into “direct causes,” “traces” into “lethal amounts” and “presence” into “overwhelming presence.” It’s a trick of both right and left, and the last thing Boulder needs is more polarization – particularly not on something centered in public health.
Nobody wants to poison people for the sake of bright smiles, but likewise, the claims of proponents that fluoride is a public health time bomb seem a little alarmist. Its other assertion – that people can get enough fluoride from good toothpaste and sprayed vegetables – is a tad elitist.
Sure, people who can afford good dental care and good toothpaste can get fluoride. But poor people – the ones local activists always seem to implore when it suits them and ignore when it doesn’t – often skimp on dental care, can’t go to a high-priced dentist for anti-cavity treatments and often don’t eat enough fruit and vegetables, so fluoridated water might be about the only preventive dental care they get.
Still, all this being said, we’re not opposed to getting the fluoride out of the water. What we’re really clamoring for is getting facts out of a public health policy debate. That’s something we could all sink our teeth into.