Christine Till, professor in the Faculty of Health, was embroiled in controversy when a letter signed by an international group of fluoridation experts was sent to York on September 21. The group demanded that Till’s research on prenatal exposure to fluoride be evaluated and reviewed by an international committee, as they claim her studies are not scientific and spread harmful misinformation based on ideology.
The incident launched Till into the media spotlight with several articles being published within days.
On September 29, President and Vice-Chancellor Rhonda Lenton replied to the letter citing York’s support for academic freedom and meritocracy, defending Till’s right to conduct and publish the research. The response also outlined that even though everyone’s freedom of speech is respected, it does not mean York agrees with the content of that speech.
The letter further stated that “free expression, especially on controversial topics, is best regulated by vigorous counterspeech. It is not appropriate for the university to decide which side of a particular issue is correct.”
Till was happy with the university’s response, but believes her reputation and credibility has already been tarnished — what she believes was the goal of the letter.
Till defends her research and addresses the criticism aimed at her findings.
“Adding fluoride to drinking water is promoted as a safe and effective way to prevent cavities. However, ingesting too much fluoride can be detrimental to children’s brain development and that is what we found in a national study,” Till explains.
The study was conducted in six cities across Canada, following 512 mother-child pairs. The women provided urine samples every trimester to measure fluoride levels at each stage, giving a marker of fluoride exposure.
“What we found was that women who had higher levels of fluoride in their urine during pregnancies had children with lower IQs. The effect was similar to what we would see with lead,” says Till. “We found an effect of about four and a half IQ points per one milligram per litre increase in fluoride. We concluded that fluoride ingestion during pregnancy at levels that are within the range of community water fluoridation, may not be safe for an unborn child.”
Till goes on to explain that her findings are not the first to suggest potential harm from fluoride, and that she is simply adding to previous work that shows similar results. “This is not debated, there is no benefit of fluoride to the fetus or the young baby until the teeth grow.”
Till believes her suggestion for pregnant women and children — to stop fluoride consumption in the first six months — is appropriate and supported by science.
“Given there is no benefit whatsoever, but potential for harm, we concluded that the recommendation at this point is to reduce fluoride intake and that can include reducing intake of fluoridated water, but also other sources of fluoride — for example, black tea,” says Till.
Till goes on to specify that she is not inherently anti-fluoride and is only a proponent of the claims her own research brought forth.
“I have not come out to say that fluoride is harmful for everyone, we are specifically talking about pregnant women and their young infants,” says Till.
Although the research topic that Till focuses on is controversial, it is not new. Vera Kornilovsky, a fifth-year French studies student, remembers avoiding tap water since she was a child, as her family feared the consumption of potentially harmful chemicals.
“I personally have been drinking filtered water since I was young. My parents told me that tap water is not safe to drink, and thus, I have been wary of drinking tap water,” says Kornilovsky. “The main concern is over various minerals contained in tap water, such as fluoride and lead. I have heard that fluoride can lead to skeletal problems.”
The skeletal problems Kornilovsky mentions is known as skeletal fluorosis, a disease which causes excess fluoride to calcify on bones causing joint and muscle pains.
Kornilovsky continues: “My parents used to tell me that it was not safe to drink tap water often, but they never really gave me an explanation. I must admit that I have not researched this topic myself, and got used to not drinking tap water without questioning it.”
Although Kornilovsky and her family may not know why they avoid tap water, their fears are not unfounded. A study conducted in Iran found skeletal fluorosis of people who live in areas with high fluoride concentration is 18.1 per cent higher than that of individuals who live in areas with low fluoride concentration.
The initial article that started this incident included comments from Till’s critics who claim that she is leading a debate by playing on people’s emotions instead of scientific facts.
“It’s bothersome that an academic goes around yelling ‘fire, fire,’ when there’s no fire,” stated Myron Allukian, former president of the American Public Health Association, a critic of the research. He went on to accuse Till of “misleading the public and others by distorting the data and not doing the proper analysis.”
Till was asked why her critics seem to oppose her claims so fervently.
“There are people who will protect fluoride no matter what the cost, no matter what the evidence says. They will disregard the evidence and continue to say that it is unequivocally safe and effective. We’ve seen this over and over by people who have strong interests in promoting fluoridation,” says Till.
The professor claims she has no agenda for her research and it was only conducted to look into a mainstream scientific idea, one that she believes was being overlooked.
“I went into this research thinking ‘either way, if we find an effect or not find an effect, both ways it’s important results.’ We can’t go around saying it’s safe when no one has done science to look at the prenatal exposure in Canadian women.”