Part of the argument for fluoridating Brisbane’s water supply is that Brisbane is out of step with the rest of Australia.
In fact, Brisbane may be out of step with the rest of Australia but it is not out of step with the rest of the world. Brisbane is in step with major cities throughout Europe and Japan where water is not fluoridated.
These countries have been unfluoridated for as long as most of Australia has been fluoridated and their drop in tooth decay is similar to the decline in tooth decay in this country. This information is based on World Health Organisation data available online.
Apart from the science, I believe it is unethical to fluoridate water. We shouldn’t be forcing people to take a medication without their informed consent. Sometimes you might have to vaccinate an entire population against a terrible disease but tooth decay is not life-threatening. Also, even if you believe swallowing fluoride is good for teeth – which it isn’t – you have to look at the rates of dental fluorosis, or a mottling of the tooth enamel.
In America, health authorities knew this was a trade-off when they they started fluoridating water in 1945, but the expectation was that only 10 per cent of children would get this condition in its mildest form. But now dental fluorosis rates in non-fluoridated communities in the US and Australia are up to 30 per cent. Children are already getting an optimum dose of fluoride in beverages, processed foods and dental products so they don’t need any more.
While Australian authorities use the WHO’s endorsement of water fluoridation in their promotional activities, they are not following one of the key recommendations of WHO which is to check to see how much fluoride people already are getting from other sources before starting fluoridation.
An easy way to find out would be to check out dental fluorosis rates, which they are not doing.
Also, there have been no Australian medical studies into bone damage or fluoride hypersensitivity which were both recommended by the National Health and Medical Research Council in 1991.
There has not been one original paper done in Australia on the health of people living in fluoridated communities – so how can pro-fluoride campaigners turn around and say there has been no damage?
As far as teeth is concerned, there was a study done by researchers at the University of Adelaide led by A. J. Spencer in 1996 into the effects of fluoride on tooth decay. They found between those children living in fluoridated communities and those in unfluoridated ones, the permanent teeth difference was between 0.12 and 0 .3 of one tooth surface out of 128 tooth surfaces in a child’s mouth.
This difference in decay is neither clinically nor statistically significant, a finding which was reaffirmed in a study published this year by Armfield and Spencer who report no significant difference in tooth decay in the permanent teeth when comparing children who consumed fluoridated tap water and those consuming tank or bottle water.
There have been references to the high level of tooth decay in Queensland but these levels for Brisbane and Queensland are similar to the rest of Australia.
Decision-makers need to be aware that unless comparisons are carefully controlled the results can be misleading, because there is a much stronger relationship between poverty and tooth decay than the presence of fluoride in the water.
In Australia, 50 per cent of tooth decay is concentrated in 10 per cent of the children and so a smart approach is to target those children instead of giving fluoride to every one unnecessarily.
This would pay much better dividends to the general health of the community. Queensland authorities might also look to countries such as Finland which has been using toothpaste with xylitol for years. Xylitol is a natural sugar and reduces the activity of bacteria in the mouth that convert sugar to enamel-attacking acids. Unlike fluoride, xylitol is non-toxic and breaks down naturally in the body.
As well as the concern about dental fluorosis, fluoride also can cause damage to bones, particularly among older people. The early symptoms of fluoride damage are well documented internationally and are identical to arthritis. Higher levels of fluoride also can lead to brittle bones and an increase in hip fractures.
Another huge concern is the latest studies from China that link lower IQ in children with natural fluoride levels as low as 1.8 part per million. As we fluoridate at one part per million, there is no margin of safety, especially when one cannot control how much water or beverages children drink.
Perhaps the single most important argument against water fluoridation is the level of fluoride in mothers’ milk – the baby’s first meal. If fluoride was needed for healthy teeth this is where you would expect to find it, but there is very little there. At 0.01 ppm it is 100 times less than added to water. Who is right here, the Australian Dental Association or Mother Nature?
This information is all documented scientifically – it is not propaganda. What I have mentioned is from studies in the peer-reviewed scientific literature.
There needs to be an open and public debate about this subject. Unfortunately, neither the Australian Medical Association nor the ADA is prepared to debate, despite many attempts to get them to do so. If anybody was serious about promoting this they would hold an open symposium and invite the people who are against fluoridation and those who are for it.
Experts from both sides should be chosen who can present scientific information with clarity, fairness and transparency and then let government officials decide. Let’s hear the science – that would be the rational way forward, not just public relations hype about how behind the times Brisbane is.
Paul Connett is a professor of chemistry at St Lawrence University, New York.