When I was a kid (probably 6 or 7), there was a big controversy in our community whether the water would be fluoridated or not. Now, I was just becoming fascinated by science, medicine, health, and sports at that time, so I tried to figure out what was happening. To my ears and adolescent brain, the argument boiled down to no fluoridation (which meant cavities and visits to the dentist) vs. fluoridation (which was a communist conspiracy). Scary choices. Though Nazi dentists were also plenty scary.
But I grew up, and fluoridation because more common. Water systems are mostly fluoridated (unless you drink bottled water). And fluoride is in toothpaste and various mouthwashes. I thought the fluoridation controversy had passed into history with rotary phones, Soviets, and the slide rule.
The John Birch Society, a right wing conspiracy group that I thought had passed into history, still considers water fluoridation to be mass medicine and once thought of it as a communist plot to poison Americans (see Schneider & Lilienfeld, 2011). Even some leftists, like the UK’s Green Party are opposed to fluoridation because of the mass medicine idea, a concern occasionally expressed by antivaccine proponents. So it’s really not a right or left political thing.
Some have made some very strong ethical arguments against fluoridation. Cross & Carton, in a 2003 article, wrote this strongly worded opinion:
Silicofluorides, widely used in water fluoridation, are unlicensed medicinal substances, administered to large populations without informed consent or supervision by a qualified medical practitioner. Fluoridation fails the test of reliability and specificity, and, lacking toxicity testing of silicofluorides, constitutes unlawful medical research. It is banned in most of Europe; European Union human rights legislation makes it illegal. Silicofluorides have never been submitted to the U.S. FDA for approval as medicines. The ethical validity of fluoridation policy does not stand up to scrutiny relative to the Nuremberg Code and other codes of medical ethics, including the Council of Europe’s Biomedical Convention of 1999. The police power of the State has been used in the United States to override health concerns, with the support of the courts, which have given deference to health authorities.
Wow. “Police Power of the State?” And they went full Godwin’s Law, by implementing the Nuremberg Code, which, as a result of the atrocities of the Nazis during World War II, is a set of research ethical principles for human medical experimentation. The Nuremberg Code requires informed consent and absence of coercion; properly formulated scientific experimentation; and beneficence towards experiment participants. It’s a strawman argument that we’ve heard before from bad actors opposed to vaccinations. Like vaccinations, the experimentation exists prior to providing the medication to the public. As long as the science has shown that the medication works, then doing it for the public good is fine, especially when the risk is so small as to be almost nonexistent.
Many have suggested that the precautionary principle be applied to this fluoridation, calling for public policy to reflect a conservative approach to minimize (or even eliminate) the risk where harm is possible (though unconfirmed), even when science has provide evidence of strong safety and effectiveness. But the precautionary principle could be used in any context to some ridiculous level. In medicine, there is always a risk to everything but the benefits can be immense. Sometimes, like in some cancer treatments, the benefits can be adding a few months of life. Or the benefits of a vaccine that can save the lives of hundreds or thousands of children at the risk of a few infections at the injections site.
So what is the actual, peer-reviewed, science for water fluoridation and tooth decay? What are the medical benefits? And what are the actual risks?
The only reason I decided to become the 47 millionth blog post on the fluoridation controversy is that a study published last summer, Developmental Fluoride Neurotoxicity: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis, has reared its ugly head on social media again. As a side note, I think that social media is like the mythical hydra for pseudoscientific concepts–you cut off one head, and two others grow back elsewhere.
The aforementioned article would appear to be one of those types of articles that I would use to support a scientific point of view: peer reviewed, published in a high quality journal, and a meta-review of other articles. The authors conclude that “our results support the possibility of adverse effects of fluoride exposures on children’s neurodevelopment.” This type of article would be enough to scare me into buying bottled water, putting in a water filtration system, and protesting at my local water department.
Then Joe Mercola, purveyor of all things pseudoscientific, writes in the anti-science Huffington Post that “Harvard Study confirms fluoride reduces children’s IQ.” At that point, it’s time to look at this more carefully
So, putting on my well-designed skeptical tin-foil hat, let’s take a close look at the “Harvard Study.”
- The paper only reviewed papers that studied children in China (and one in Iran), not in the USA. So, there may not be any relevance to child development in the US. This, in itself, is not a reason to dismiss the study, but it is a reason to to wonder if it can be applied to the US.
- Since 2002, China has not fluoridated its water. Oops.
- Most of the studies in the meta-review included children in rural areas who are exposed to large natural amounts of fluoride, especially in the water, but also from the air (coal powered electrical plants). In the studies, the “control” groups were exposed to approximately 0.5-1.0 mg/L of fluoride. Those in the “high” group, and of course showed more neurotoxicity, were exposed to 2.0-10.0 mg/L. In the USA, the EPA considers the upper safe limit to be 4.0 mg/L, and prefers water to not exceed 2.0 mg/L. Most water systems in the USA remove naturally occurring fluoride to below 2.0 mg/L and fluoridation is always in the 0.5-1.0 mg/L range. Or, with respect to this study–the normal group.
- This was not an experimental study, so nothing was controlled. Confounding factors such as other naturally occurring minerals, say arsenic, and other environmental factors were not considered. This was simply taking a group of individuals (children), arbitrarily choosing a factor (fluoride), and placing individuals on either side of some number without consideration of the dozens of other factors. This isn’t science!
On the other hand, there is solid science backing the safety of fluoridation of water. They simply conclude that, “Fluoridation of drinking water remains the most effective and socially equitable means of achieving community-wide exposure to the caries (cavities) prevention effects of fluoride.” The CDC provides an exhaustive list of scientific studies that support the safety of fluoridated water.
As with vaccines, the same arguments are made. A vague belief in government conspiracies–I’m sure my use of the CDC as a source of scientific soundness will be a sure sign of a conspiracy. Bad science. Cherry picking studies while ignoring the 99.9% of studies that say fluoridated water is safe. Using Joe Mercola as your source!
I’m going back to my original point. Unless there’s some compelling and dramatic scientific argument about the safety of fluoride, I prefer that to having to go to a dentist to repair cavities any day. And if you ask my kids, they’d say the same thing!
- Choi AL, Sun G, Zhang Y, Grandjean P. Developmental fluoride neurotoxicity: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Environ Health Perspect. 2012 Oct;120(10):1362-8. doi: 10.1289/ehp.1104912. Epub 2012 Jul 20. PubMed PMID: 22820538; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC3491930.
- Cross DW, Carton RJ. Fluoridation: a violation of medical ethics and human rights. Int J Occup Environ Health. 2003 Jan-Mar;9(1):24-9. PubMed PMID: 12749628.
- Schneider D, Lilienfeld D, eds. 2011. Public Health: The Development of a Discipline, Volume 2, Twentieth-Century Challenges, vol. 2. Rutgers University Press. ISBN 978-0813550091. Page 116.
- Tickner J, Coffin M. What does the precautionary principle mean for evidence-based dentistry? J Evid Based Dent Pract. 2006 Mar;6(1):6-15. PubMed PMID: 17138389.
- Yeung CA. A systematic review of the efficacy and safety of fluoridation. Evid Based Dent. 2008;9(2):39-43. doi: 10.1038/sj.ebd.6400578. PubMed PMID: 18584000.
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