Reason Magazine

“Impurifying our precious bodily fluids”

Fear of fluoridation takes a left turn

| December 5, 2001

In the 1964 movie Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, General Jack D. Ripper launches a nuclear strike against the Soviet Union to stop the Communist infiltration that he fears will “sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.” In the 1960s, moviegoers instantly recognized that Ripper’s character was a parody of a right-wing paranoid. It was a leftist highbrow swipe at the John Birch Society’s (JBS) opposition to the campaign to fluoridate community water supplies in the 1950s. The JBS opposed the fluoridation of public water supplies on the grounds that it is an involuntary mass medical treatment that violates individual rights.

It is a curious anomaly that anti-fluoridationism became a right-wing cause. After all, it was muckraking New Deal journalist Rachel Lynn Palmer and physician Isidore Alpher who first warned in their 1937 classic 40,000,000 Guinea Pig Children against the dangers posed by fluorine compounds to children. Most pernicious was the invention by a conscienceless corporation of a toothpaste with fluoride.

“Manufacturing a dentifrice containing fluorine seems nothing short of grotesque,” they declared. “The possibility of such dentifrices being marketed is an excellent example of why only those accepted by the American Dental Association should be used.”

Now, however, the left-wing environmentalist paranoids are beginning to embrace their lost anti-fluoridationist tradition. The jumpstart to modern left-wing opposition to fluoridation can be traced to an alarmist article, “Fluoride: Commie Plot or Capitalist Ploy” in the Fall 1992 issue of Covert Action Quarterly. That article claimed that fluoridation was devised in the 1940s chiefly as a way for the aluminum industry to dispose of toxic fluoride wastes. Instead of dumping the wastes in landfills, industry dumped them in the nation’s water supplies, and at a profit too.

In 1992, libertarian theorist Murray Rothbard reprised the Covert Action story in an article for the John Birch Society-affiliated magazine The New American. In that article Rothbard wondered, “It has always been a bit of a mystery to me why left-environmentalists, who shriek in horror at a bit of Alar on apples, who cry ‘cancer’ even more absurdly than the boy cried ‘Wolf,’ who hate every chemical additive known to man, still cast their benign approval upon fluoride, a highly toxic and probably carcinogenic substance.”

Of course, the answer to this conundrum is that the left couldn’t oppose fluoridation because it was originally promoted as a public health measure. However, as soon as it was reframed as a “capitalist ploy,” left-wingers could respectably begin to campaign against it. Fear of fluoride was on.

During the 2000 presidential campaign, Green Party candidate and left-wing icon Ralph Nader came out against fluoridation. Now groups like the Sierra Club claim that there are “valid concerns” about the “potential adverse impact of fluoridation on the environment, wildlife, and human health.” Often-cited “adverse health impacts” of fluoridated water include bone cancer, depressed thyroid function, lowered IQ, weakened bones, and discolored teeth. As the perpetual unscientific environmentalist campaigns against trace amounts of synthetic chemicals show, the left is now the political tendency most desperately afraid of impurifying our precious bodily fluids.

In May 2000, the ideological environmentalist opposition to fluoridation got a further boost with the formation of the Fluoride Action Network (FAN). FAN founders include such alarmist luminaries as the late David Brower (former Sierra Club executive director and founder of Friends of the Earth), Teddy Goldsmith (founding editor of The Ecologist), Gar Smith (Earth Island Institute), and Terri Swearingen (Ohio anti-incineration activist).

But you needn’t be either a capitalist or a communist dupe to think public fluoridation is a good idea. In the early 20th century, a dentist named Frederick McKay opened his practice in Colorado Springs. McKay noted that the teeth of many locals had brownish discolorations. He also noted that they had relatively few decayed teeth. Researching the matter for decades, McKay eventually concluded that fluorine compounds in the water supply were the cause of both the discoloration and the cavity prevention.

Trendley Dean, a U.S. Public Health Service dental officer, heard of McKay’s research and designed studies in 1936 which showed that fluoride concentrations of around one part per million prevented tooth decay while not discoloring teeth. On December 14, 1945, Grand Rapids, Mich., became the first city in which sodium fluoride was added to its water supply as a way to prevent dental caries.

Today, some 62 percent of Americans served by public water systems drink fluoridated water. Studies show that fluoridation reduces the amount of cavities that children get by up to 60 percent. (It reduces adult cavity levels by 35 percent.) One study estimated that fluoridation reduced U.S. dental care expenditures by $39 billion between 1979 and 1989.

A new report issued on November 30 by the Task Force on Community Preventive Services for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), after reviewing peer-reviewed scientific evidence from around the world, once again “strongly recommended community water fluoridation.” An earlier CDC report from 1999 noted that “opponents of water fluoridation have claimed it increased the risk for cancer, Down syndrome, heart disease, osteoporosis and bone fracture, acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, low intelligence, Alzheimer disease, allergic reactions, and other health conditions.”

But that CDC report dismissed such claims: “The safety and effectiveness of water fluoridation have been re-evaluated frequently, and no credible evidence supports an association between fluoridation and any of these conditions.” It is true that a very small number of people exposed to fluorides in drinking water will develop fluorosis, a cosmetic condition in which generally small chalky white spots appear on sufferers’ teeth.

Since 1950, much to the chagrin of Palmer and Alpher, the American Dental Association “has continuously and unreservedly endorsed the optimal fluoridation of community water supplies as a safe and effective public health measure for the prevention of dental decay.” The CDC and ADA are not alone in their enthusiasm for fluoridation–nearly 100 national and international professional medical societies and research organizations also endorse community water fluoridation, including the Institute of Medicine, the World Health Organization, the National Academy of Sciences, and the American Medical Association.

On balance the scientific evidence seems to indicate that fluoridation is a safe and effective way to prevent tooth decay. Of course, that doesn’t mean that future studies will not identify problems–research is always subject to revision. However it is highly likely that, after 50 years of use by millions of people, any truly major health problems resulting from fluoridation would already have made themselves evident.

Of course, as the debates over issues like vaccination and environmental policy have shown, scientific evidence doesn’t sway committed ideologues. The technophobes and reactionaries of the left and the right will continue campaigning against fluoridation until the sun burns out. So if you don’t want fluoride in your water supplies, then by all means join the motley ranks of anti-fluoridationist figures like Jack D. Ripper, Ralph Nader, and the Sierra Club. You are free to ignore the scientific evidence of fluoridation’s benefits and vote “no” when it comes up as a referendum in your community. May you enjoy paying more for your dental bills and possibly condemning your children to false teeth in their old age.