Harvard/Bone Cancer Files

The documents that sparked national headlines and a year-long investigation into scientific misconduct by the Harvard dental professor who led NIH's ongoing study of fluoride and bone cancer. Plus, new documents obtained from under the Freedom of Information Act.

The Conflicts of Interest

In considering whether Chester Douglass intentionally misrepresented Bassin’s findings, and the adequacy of Harvard’s investigation into the allegations that he did, there are three conflicts of interest worth considering:

1) Douglass Is a Long-time Advocate of Water Fluoridation

The first conflict is a personal one. Douglass is a long-time advocate of water fluoridation as well as Chairman of the Board of Trustees for the Delta Dental Foundation of Massachusetts. In keeping with Douglass’s views on fluoridation, the Delta Dental Foundation is an organization that actively promotes, and funds, water fluoridation programs across the US. In California and Washington State, Delta Dental has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbying for, and funding, water fluoridation programs. In Massachusetts, Delta Dental has a webpage devoted to its promotion of “fluoride programs”, including:

  • Providing HeadStart Programs with fluoride tablets.
  • Funding fluoride mouth-rinse programs to school systems in towns with non-fluoridated water.
  • Advocating fluoridated water to cities and towns that don’t have it.

Douglass’s pro-fluoridation bias may help explain why he did not communicate any of Bassin’s findings to the NRC and why he decided (at the British Fluoridation Society’s conference in 2002) to characterize his retrospective data as showing a reduced risk of osteosarcoma in fluoridated areas. This possibility gains credence from the statements of Douglass himself. Indeed, in one of the FOIA documents obtained by FAN, Douglass discusses the need to design the study in a way that minimizes the chance that fluoridation policies would be adversely affected. As he noted:

“Because of the importance of the question at hand, we think the policy implications of reporting that the relative risk may be higher than 1.5 would have consequences for fluoridation health policies.”

2) Douglass & Colgate

In addition to being a professor of Dentistry at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine, Douglass served as Editor of COLGATE’s “Oral Care Report” during the course of the study. Colgate, of course, is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of fluoride toothpaste. To the extent that Douglass’s study found that fluoride caused osteosarcoma in children, the potential for legal litigation against Colgate would exist not only in the US, but in many other countries as well.

3) Harvard & Douglass: The Fox & the Henhouse

The third conflict of interest that warrants consideration is the fact that NIH farmed out the investigation to Harvard. While this appears to be standard NIH policy, it seems a dubious one at best. As highlighted by the recent controversy at PennState, it can be difficult for a university to police itself. It was problematic, therefore, to think that Harvard could be an effective neutral arbiter of the dispute. Douglass not only brought in over a million dollars of NIH research funding for the school, he personally donated over a million dollars as well.

Since Harvard did not release a copy of its review to the public, it is impossible to assess the thoroughness of its investigation. It is worth noting, however, that the university gave Douglass a copy of its draft report more than five months prior to the completion of the final report. By contrast, the university never once contacted the party (Environmental Working Group) that filed the complaint with the NIH.