I don’t know why, or why I hadn’t before, but the other day I read the back of my wrinkly tube of toothpaste.
As if I don’t already suffer enough anxiety, I found these words: “Do not swallow.”
Nearby was a warning to keep the tube away from children under 6. It got worse: “If more than used for brushing is accidentally swallowed, get medical help or contact a Poison Control Center right away.”
Words like “poison” and “do not swallow” do not belong on the label of anything you put in your mouth even once a day.
But there they were, on my Arm & Hammer, on a tube of Colgate in my travel case, on my husband’s “natural” Tom’s of Maine. When I visited my local drugstore, I found similar words — including the P word — on every brand I checked.
What the hell?
One friend guessed too much toothpaste might “plug you up like concrete,” so that evening before bed I squeezed a tablespoon onto my finger and ate it. Its powerful minty taste made me gag, but it didn’t kill me overnight or slow any of my natural functions.
I considered eating a spoonful every day for a month, just to see. Instead I called the 800 number on the tube, where I learned the warning, required by the FDA, had to do with just one toothpaste ingredient — fluoride.
So what’s the problem?
“It’s not meant to be ingested,” Tonya in Arm & Hammer customer service told me. “It’s just supposed to be put on the teeth to help with strengthening.”
So what happens if you ingest too much?
“I honestly don’t know,” she said, “but I’ve heard some people say they squeeze the toothpaste straight from the tube into their mouths as they leave the house, and that’s not the purpose of the product.”
Prowling the Internet, I found alarming claims about fluoride: that it’s up there with arsenic and lead in toxicity, that half a tube of toothpaste can kill a child, that it’s linked to attention deficit disorder, to Alzheimer’s disease, to bone cancer and arthritis. I learned that Grand Rapids in 1950 was the first city in America to fluoridate its water, and that now about two-thirds of Americans drink fluoridated water.
Only 2 percent of Europeans do, because scientists there consider the chemical too dangerous to spread around.
I spoke with Christopher Bryson, an award-winning investigative journalist who a year ago published “The Fluoride Deception” ($24.95, Seven Stories Press). He told me optimal fluoridation levels of 1 part per million scare him, since research has found dramatic toxic effects in animals consuming 5 parts per million.
He uses a fluoride filter on his home tap in New York City. As for fluoridated toothpaste, he said, “I think about what my 2-year-old son is looking to do, so I don’t keep the stuff in my house.”
It’s a lot to swallow
At Poison Control’s national number — 800-222-1222 — I found Susan Smolinske, a pharmacist at Children’s Hospital of Michigan. She said a 22-pound child would have to eat an ounce of fluoridated toothpaste to get an upset stomach. She vaguely remembers one case of a seizure in a child who ate too much, but said acute fluoride poisoning from toothpaste isn’t as troubling as chronic exposure.
You should worry, she said, “if you have a child who every day eats a couple teaspoons.” That can cause severe bone and other problems.
Then she told me, “If you drink fluoridated water, you don’t even need toothpaste. It’s more important to brush your teeth than to brush them with toothpaste.”
I never knew that. I’m happy I now do, and I’m glad I read my tube, which is now in the trash.