A fluoride protest in Ireland. Photo by William Murphy.
Do you agree with compulsory mass medication? Well, if you live in the United States then your government does. Fluoride began being supplied into the U.S. tap water system in 1951 and by 1960, it had reached 50 million people. The new policy was enacted by the U.S. Public Health Service following findings that it helped in the prevention of tooth decay for young children. From the start, automatic water fluoridation had its strong opponents. One renowned cancer research scientist, Dr. Ludwik Gross, in a New York Times interview called fluoride “an insidious poison, harmful, toxic and cumulative in its effect, even when ingested in minimal amounts.”
Dr. Gross was not alone in his opposition to the new water enrichment plan. Many believed then, as they still do today, that the mandatory inclusion of fluoride into the drinking supply of the general public is a questionable method at best and a potentially harmful one at worst.
Scientifically speaking, water fluoridation is the process of adding siliocofluorides, or sodium fluoride, to our drinking water. Fluoride can either be delivered topically (as in toothpastes, etc.) or systemically via ingestion. Tap water fluoridation results in a systemic delivery of fluoride into the body, yet topical fluoride application has been shown to be most effective. Here in lies the heart of the raging fluoride water debate. Why, opponents ask, must the government artificially infuse our water system with fluoride if we can just as easily obtain its benefits through topical sources such as mouthwash, without the possibly adverse health effects that drinking fluoride has?
While proponents maintain that ingesting fluoridated water over a lifetime will result in no health detriments the opposition is able to refer to a mass body of scientific evidence published by reputable peer-reviewed medical publications that say otherwise. Some studies have found a link between fluoride ingestion and low IQ levels in children. Several others remark on the connection betwixt fluoride and bone health. One such study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association states the following “We found a … significant increase in the risk of hip fracture in both men and women exposed to artificial fluoridation at low levels…” Amazingly the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has classified fluoride as an “unapproved drug”, which means it has not gone through the rigorous trials needed to establish either its effectiveness or its safety. The question of why the government would put any drug, let alone one that has unproven benefits, into our water supply is one that resounds with many citizen action groups. Why is the government wasting money and resources on medicated our water with a drug whose consequences are hazy at best? Surely cavities are not the biggest health issue facing Americans today—yet hypothyroidism (underactivity of endocrine gland), which some studies suggest can be induced by fluoride ingestion, is one of the top five health problems in our country.
The nature of where all this fluoride comes from is also a major issue. Many might be shocked and disgusted to hear that the fluoride in our drinking water is the by-product of toxic hazardous waste derived from aluminum, steel, and fertilizer industry. Whereas these industries used to have to spend a lot of money to discard of this waste legally, they are now able to launder it through the public water utilities where it can be considered a “product” as opposed to “waste”, which has to meet very stringent EPA standards. Obviously, being able to reconstruct what used to be an extremely costly hazardous waste material into a salable product is a very attractive proposal for these phosphate companies. But many feel that simply diluting down a toxic waste by-product that is much more toxic than lead, almost as toxic as arsenic, and contains some of both is not enough to make it safe, let alone desirable.
A fair and hard-to-argue-with statement concerning the stalemate between the two sides of the fluoride debate is well put in the comprehensive book, The Fluoride Wars by R. Allen Freeze and Jay H. Lehr: “When it comes to the fluoride contamination question, as with most long-term accumulative health issues, absolute proof of neurotoxicological harm is hard to come by, but so is absolute proof of safety.”  Should the government be mandating a drug, the effects of which are uncertain? It would seem that in an area of unsettled science where there is even a mere prospect of harm that a responsible government would take a precautionary approach and not endanger the welfare of many, while infringing on the autonomy of all, in order to possibly benefit a few.
1. Freeze, R. Allan., and Jay H. Lehr. The Fluoride Wars: How a Modest Public Health Measure Became America’s Longest-running Political Melodrama. Hoboken, NJ: J. Wiley & Sons, 2009. Print.