For eons now, liberals have teased conservatives about one thing (well, many things, but I’m thinking of one in particular): the fluoridation of water. “Oh, you work at NATIONAL REVIEW? What do you do, write editorials denouncing the fluoridation of the water supply?” Ha, ha, ha. (Actually, we spend our time advocating separate lunch counters for Negroes.) In many quarters, “fluoridation of water” is a code word for right-wing kookery.
Well, imagine my surprise-and delight-when I was talking recently with a dentist friend of mine and the subject of water fluoridation came up: “We still have to fight on that, all over the country,” he said. “What,” I said, “you mean the Birchers are still at it?” “Oh, no,” he replied. “It’s the Left. The opposition comes from the environmentalist, earthy-crunchy, sandal-wearing Left.”
Well, well, well. Who’s laughin’ now, baby?
You would have thought that the issue was long ago settled, but a dip back into it reveals that, indeed, the fluoridation war is raging: and that the anti-fluoridation banner is carried chiefly by the Left. The “anti-fluoridationists” are quite well organized, with a variety of websites, activist groups, and leaders. The main anti- fluoridation engine, it would seem, is F.A.N. (or the Fluoride Action Network). Its overarching goal is to “end fluoridation of public water supplies worldwide.” On its website- www.FluorideAlert.org-it lists its founding members, foremost among them the “Environmentalists.” These include the founder of Friends of the Earth; the editor of Coyote Nation; the publisher of The Ecologist; the co-founders of Green Watch; a past president of the Secular Franciscan Order (U.S.); and so on. After the Environmentalists come the Scientists, of whom my favorite-given our subject-is Dr. Bruce Spittle, managing editor of the International Journal of Fluoride Research.
Articles against fluoridation appear in such magazines as The Progressive and CovertAction Quarterly. In this latter publication, there appeared in 1992 a long piece called “Fluoride: Commie Plot or Capitalist Ploy?” It argued that fluoride was essentially a conspiracy of the government, the corporations, and the media. Ralph Nader was an anti-fluoridationist early. The Environmental News Network-based in Berkeley, Calif.-is a keen purveyor of anti- fluoridation claims and warnings. The Natural Resources Defense Council is anti-fluoridation, and the Sierra Club urges “safer alternatives” to fluoridation, given “the potential adverse impact” of the practice on “the environment, wildlife, and human health.” Some Sierra Club chapters are radically anti-fluoridationist.
So, your average “anti-fluoride kook” is not likely to be a right- winger in Orange County (although he may still have his doubts); it’s likely to be, oh, a follower of the Master Herbalist whose views are found at www.HerbalLegacy.com.
The big health organizations in this country, in case you were wondering, are still solidly behind the fluoridation of water. The American Dental Association says “fluoride is nature’s cavity fighter. . . . As with other nutrients, fluoride is safe and effective when used and consumed properly.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has declared that the fluoridation of water is “one of the ten great public-health achievements of the 20th century.” And the surgeon general-whoever he is-smiles on fluoridation. The good Dr. Koop, for instance, said, “Fluoridation is the single most important commitment a community can make to the oral health of its children and to future generations.”
Nevertheless, cities and towns all over this country have been rejecting fluoridation: either removing fluoride from their water or persisting in keeping it out. Some of these places are among the most “progressive” in America: Santa Cruz, Calif.; Santa Barbara, too; Ithaca, N.Y.; Worcester, Mass. Many of them are in the Pacific Northwest, which may be called the environmentalist heartland. Washington, Oregon-even British Columbia-are full of fluoridation dissenters. Down in Palo Alto, Calif., activists have made impressive headway. They’ve collected enough signatures to place a no-fluoridation referendum on the November ballot. Palo Alto has been fluoridating since 1954, but, come next year, who knows? In all, more than 50 cities have rejected fluoridation since 1999, and the activists feel the wind is at their back.
Many “mainstreamers” complain that a few such activists in a given community get a hold of the issue and influence everyone else- through “scare-mongering.” Sow doubts about fluoridation, and ordinary people say, “Why risk it?” In fact, there’s an anti- fluoridationist slogan: “If you’re not sure it’s safe, don’t fluoridate!” Howard F. Pollick, a dental professor at the University of California, San Francisco, says that anti-fluoridationists have always been with us, and probably always will. “Their tactics have changed over the years, to suit the times, and the issues of the day.” Originally, the issue was Communism (for right-wingers). Then it was environmentalism. Then it was cancer. Then it was . . . you could almost take your choice. Pollick adds that technology has abetted the anti-fluoridation cause, as it has so many causes: “They [the activists] e-mail and fax their materials around, to city- council members and so on. It’s like fishing: You throw out a line and hope that something will bite.” And, given the Internet, you can reach a lot of fish.
And those fish are around the globe. Anti-fluoridationists have made their presence felt everywhere, including in the most eco- trendy locales. Take New Zealand, than which you can’t get eco- trendier. The Green party there has fought hard against the fluoridation of Christchurch. A spokeswoman-echoing a common line- describes it as a form of “mass medication,” unethical to impose. In the United Kingdom, too, the Greens are in the anti-fluoridation lead. In December, a party spokesman said, “The general trend in the world is against fluoridation. It’s quite incredible that Tony Blair would want to fluoridate Britain.” The Scottish section of Britain will probably not see fluoridation anytime soon. Officials there wanted to fluoridate, but the public-led by the activists-revolted. The health minister seems to have told the anti-fluoridationists to “bugger off.” They did not. Now the Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh is resigned to combating cavities by means other than fluoridation, citing “political challenges.”
On the European continent itself, fluoridation is virtually unknown. Basel has just stopped fluoridating its water, after 41 years; this means that Switzerland is now entirely fluoridation- free. Belgium has gone so far as to ban fluoride drops and tablets for children. European anti-fluoridationists portray the fluoridation holdouts-Ireland, Spain-as (in fact) kooky, and not with it. And, of course, the kookiest and not-with-it-est continent of all is North America.
THE SOURCE OF ALL FEARS
So, what are the objections of the anti-fluoridationists? They are numerous, and I will breeze through a few of them. That fluoride is a pollutant. That it is unnecessary in fighting cavities (hygiene and diet will do). That there is now too much fluoride about, in foods, juices, soft drinks, etc. That, if it’s in the water, everyone is forced to ingest it, with no regard to the individual and his needs. That it is therefore unthinking, and coercive, and, really, un-American. Indeed, basic political questions come into play here. Should people have a say in whether their water is fluoridated, or should the matter be trusted to experts? In Bonney Lake, Wash., the mayor said, “These decisions need to be local, need to come back to the people.” In Palo Alto, a spokeswoman for the city utility department said, “If the community voted it in, the community has to vote it out.” Paul Connett, a chemistry professor at St. Lawrence University in New York, is a leading anti- fluoridationist, and in his “50 Reasons to Oppose Fluoridation,” he says, “While referenda are [preferable] to imposed policies from central government, it still leaves the problem of individual rights versus majority rule.”
As the layman listens in, some of the anti-fluoridationists’ arguments sound reasonable: For example, even mainstream dentists concede that fluoride might be better as a topical application than as a substance to swallow. Some who are against fluoride in the water have no problem with fluoride in Crest. But it must be said that almost every problem under the sun has been blamed on fluoridation, in the most indiscriminate way: fluorosis (of course- that comes from an excess of fluoride, and no one says that fluoride in water shouldn’t be wisely controlled); brittle bones; cancer; Alzheimer’s disease; Chronic Fatigue Syndrome; hypothyroidism, with its concomitants of weight gain, high cholesterol, heart disease. Fluoride seems to be an all-purpose bogey, the opposite of a panacea, the cause of every ill-and that’s leaving aside the environmental concerns.
Still, the mainstreamers can be awfully high-handed when it comes to the anti-fluoridationists. Paul Connett complains, “Promoters of fluoridation refuse to recognize that there is any scientific debate on this issue.” That’s largely true. Connett points out that a leading fluoridation proponent has said, “Debates give the illusion that a scientific controversy exists when no credible people support the fluorophobics’ view.” That is patently untrue. Many dentists- unorthodox, to be sure-oppose fluoridation, and the “fluorophobics” can boast some heavy-hitters, like Arvid Carlsson, winner of the 2000 Nobel prize in medicine. And yet many of the mainstreamers persist in treating every anti-fluoridationist like a street-corner quack. Indeed, there are anti-anti-fluoridationist whacks at QuackWatch.org. This site contains an article-generally informative and persuasive-that says, “The anti-fluoridationists’ basic technique is the big lie. Made infamous by Hitler, it is simple to use, yet surprisingly effective.” This is perhaps not the best way to win an argument, especially with serious-minded people. The anti- fluoridationists complain that the mainstreamers are afraid to debate them, relying on dogma, tradition, and prejudice instead of scientific fact.
And the American Dental Association has done something really disgraceful. As I mentioned, the principal anti-fluoridation site is “www.FluorideAlert.org.” (Note the final three letters.) So what did the ADA do? It captured the addresses “www.FluorideAlert.com” and “www.FluorideAlert.net,” both of which divert the surfer to the homepage of the ADA. This is childish sabotage. A dental association confident of its position would not resort to such a tactic.
Believe me, the scientific questions are beyond my purview-way beyond it. My main concern (and joy) is that anti-fluoridationism, whatever its legitimacy, is now a cause of the environmentalist Left. I would go so far as to say that the anti-fluoridation position is politically correct. But the media have been slow to grasp this development. When they introduce the topic, they’re likely to make a crack about the Birchers. The Birchers, however, are long gone-from this controversy as from just about everything else. The fluoridation thing is like a traveling circus, going from town to town, setting up its tent, wooing some of the people, failing to woo others. But the Right-kooky or calm, naughty or nice- has virtually nothing to do with it.
What a relief! The shoe is now on the other foot; the tables have turned; the . . . think of your own cliche. All I know is, if you want to tease about fluoridation, don’t come to me. Talk to, say, Al Gore. I’m just sitting here, going ha, ha, ha.