We’ve all seen it on TV a million times. This or that brand of toothpaste, made with fluoride! The wonder drug that’s going to save our teeth from cavities! If you hear it enough growing up, especially as an impressionable youngster watching children’s TV with its endless toothpaste commercials, you just might start to believe it.
Another View at Fluoride
What the commercials don’t say is that fluoride was known in the early 1900s as an excellent rat poison. According to Robert Carleton, former scientist with the EPA, fluoride is more toxic than lead, and not quite as toxic as arsenic. It’s a waste product of many heavy industries—derived from the production of pesticides, fertilizers, aluminum, iron, steel, copper, lead, uranium, brick, cement and glass, among others.
Studies over the years have pointed to fluoride as a possible carcinogen, a bone-weakening agent and even a reason for decreased fertility among women. As the Oakland Tribune writes, a few grams of the stuff are enough to kill you.
And yet, most of us buy toothpaste with fluoride (it’s what our dentists usually recommend, after all). More ominously, two-thirds of the water supply in the United States is fluoridated, which some observers say is akin to forced mass medication.
Fluoride has been banned in many European countries because of possible health hazards. However, the United States government continues to push communities to fluoridate their water supply. A growing number of people think this has less to do with preventing cavities than with helping industry handle a toxic waste problem.
No More Than a Pea: Limit Fluoride Usage
As it turns out, too much toothpaste may not be good for your health. Concerned that too many young children were swallowing toothpaste, the Food and Drug Administration, beginning in April 1997, required the following warning to appear on tubes of fluoridated toothpaste: "Use only a pea sized amount and supervise child’s brushing and rinsing (to minimize swallowing)." Parents also are warned to keep the toothpaste "out of the reach of children under 6," and to "seek professional help or contact a poison center immediately" if more than is used for brushing is accidentally swallowed.
The FDA’s decision also was spurred by the growing number of cases of dental fluorosis—an unsightly and permanent discoloration of the teeth. The Wall Street Journal reports that 22 percent of American children now have the condition, which occurs in young children under six who have consumed too much fluoride.
Words from Scientific Communities
Many scientists and doctors have spoken out against the dangers of fluoride in recent years, including some people who used to be among the strongest advocates of fluoridation.
In 1999, a union of 1,200 scientists, doctors and lawyers who work for the Environmental Protection Agency announced their opposition to water fluoridation because of a growing body of evidence that indicates "a causal link between it and cancer, genetic damage, neurological impairment and bone pathology."
In a May, 1999 statement, union senior vice president William Hirzy, an EPA scientist, wrote, "The union first became interested in this issue rather by accident. Like most Americans, including many physicians and dentists, most of our members had thought that fluoride’s only effects were beneficial—reductions in tooth decay, etc. We too believed assurances of safety and effectiveness of fluoridation."
As the EPA was revising its drinking water standard for fluoride in 1985, an employee complained to the union that he "was being forced to write into the regulation a statement to the effect that the EPA thought it was alright for children to have ‘funky’ teeth. It was OK, EPA said, because it considered the condition to be only a cosmetic effect, not an adverse health effect."
The EPA was under political pressure to raise its health-based standard for fluoride from 1 mg/liter to 4 mg/liter. EPA knew, according to Hirzy, that "a significant number of children develop moderate to severe dental fluorosis" at that level, "but since it had deemed the effect as only cosmetic, EPA didn’t have to set its health-based standard at a lower level to prevent it."
The EPA union’s opposition to water fluoridation has grown since then, "based on the scientific literature documenting the increasingly out-of-control exposures to fluorides, the lack of benefit to dental health from ingestion of fluoride and the hazards to human health from such ingestion. These hazards include acute toxic hazard, such as to people with impaired kidney function, as well as chronic toxic hazards of gene mutations, cancer, reproductive effects, neurotoxicity, bone pathology and dental fluorosis."
Canada’s former top pro-fluoride authority, Dr. Hardy Limeback, a biochemist and professor of dentistry at the University of Toronto, told the Toronto Sunday Star in 1999 that parents should keep fluoride away from children under three, and that water fluoridation is unnecessary and may be risky.
"There is no point in swallowing fluoridated water," he said. "The only benefit comes with direct contact with the teeth."
The American Dental Association, for its part, says that "the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence indicates that fluoridation of community water supplies is both safe and effective." The Washington State Dental Association calls fluoridation "one of the most significant public health success stories of the century."
Limeback strongly disagrees. "We absolutely know about the tragic consequences of higher levels of fluoride, and we know it builds up over time. These people haven’t done any studies to find out what effect fluoride accumulation will have at current levels. How can they say it’s safe when the studies haven’t been done? Right now, we have people who have been ingesting fluoride for 35 years. What happens in another 50 years, when these people have been adding this poison to their bones for 85 years?"
Almost all the beverages we drink, such as beer, soda and juice, are made with fluoridated water. Fish and other foods contain fluoride, and the vegetables we eat often are grown with fertilizers that contain fluoride. We also cook most of our foods in fluoridated water.
Weakened Bones, Bone Cancer and Lower IQs
Dr. John Colquhoun, the former principal dental officer for Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, was one of fluoridation’s staunchest supporters—until he looked into the world-wide data on fluoridation’s effectiveness in preventing cavities.
In a paper titled "Why I changed my mind about water fluoridation", which appeared in the journal Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, Colquhoun reviews several studies that show possible health risks from consuming too much fluoride. In addition to his growing shock over the number of cases of fluorosis in his own fluoridated city, Colquhoun also became concerned by the apparent link between fluoridation and weakened bones.
"Common sense tells us that if a poison circulating in a child’s body can damage the tooth-forming cells, then other harm also is likely," he writes. "We had always admitted that fluoride in excess can damage bones, as well as teeth."
In 1984, Colquhoun warned the Auckland Regional Authority that some of the children with dental fluorosis may also suffer damage to their bones. He was scorned and derided for challenging the dental establishment.
The ADA argues that ingesting "optimally fluoridated water does not have an adverse effect on bone health." The association notes that fluoride has been used as a bone-strengthening agent; it has been used for the past 30 years as an experimental therapy to treat osteoporosis.
In 1990, the first study suggesting a link between fluoridated water and hip fractures in the elderly was published. "Hip fracture rates have increased dramatically, independently of the increasing age of populations," Colquhoun writes. "Seven other studies have now reported this association between low water fluoride levels and hip fractures."
"But in addition to these epidemiological studies," he adds, "clinical trials have demonstrated that when fluoride is used in an attempt to treat osteoporosis (in the belief it strengthened bones), it actually caused more hip fractures. That is, when fluoride accumulates in bones, it weakens them."
We excrete about half the fluoride we swallow through our urine; the rest accumulates in our bones. "We believed the accumulation would be insignificant at the low fluoride levels of fluoridated water," Colquhoun says.
In the 1980s, a Finland study revealed that osteoporosis sufferers had extremely high levels of fluoride in their bones, according to the Irish Independent newspaper. Finland banned fluoridation because of the study. Holland banned it after medical practitioners revealed that it causes reversible neuromuscular and gastrointestinal harm to some people.
Colquhoun adds that fluoridation may cause a rare bone cancer, called osteosarcoma, in young males. Osteosarcoma has "increased dramatically" among boys aged 9 to 19 in fluoridated areas of America, he says, but not in non-fluoridated areas. The New Jersey Department of Health has reported osteosarcoma rates three to seven times higher in the state’s fluoridated areas than its non-fluoridated areas, for example.
While it is uncertain why the cancer affects only males, one study has suggested that very low levels of fluoride can interfere with the male hormone, testosterone, which is involved in male bone growth.
The ADA says that there is no connection between cancer rates in humans and adding fluoride to water.
"Even more chilling," Colquhoun says, "is the evidence from China that children with dental fluorosis have on average lower intelligence scores."
‘The Solution to Pollution is Dilution’
It’s hard for most of us to believe that our government and industry leaders would be behind an effort to get rid of an industrial toxic waste by putting it in our drinking water.
But it wouldn’t be the first, or only, time industry has tried to get rid of its waste products through devious means. Many Puget Sound residents will remember the Seattle Times 1997 investigative series, "Fear in the Fields", which revealed the practice of turning industrial wastes—many of which contain such potentially dangerous substances as lead, arsenic and even radioactive material—into fertilizers for farm fields and gardens.
Fluoride is emitted by aluminum, steel and fertilizer factories, and is a waste product of several other heavy industries as well. These industries would normally have to pay high fees to dispose of fluoride. Instead, they sell it to water districts.
In 1983, Rebecca Hammer, the deputy assistant administrator of the EPA’s Office of Drinking Water, wrote a memo saying that water fluoridation is "an ideal environmental solution to a long-standing problem."
"In other words," says Senior EPA scientist Hirzy, "fluoride that otherwise would be an air and water pollutant is no longer a pollutant as long is it’s poured into your reservoir. The solution to pollution is dilution and in this case, the dilution is your drinking water. It’s a good deal for the fertilizer industry. Instead of paying a substantial amount to cart this stuff away, they get paid $180 a long ton by the water municipalities."
In 1998, Earth Island Journal ran an article by Joel Griffiths, titled "Fluoride: Industry’s toxic coup". Griffiths notes that fluorine is the most abundant of the highly toxic elements, such as arsenic, mercury and lead, found throughout the Earth’s crust. Ordinarily, only tiny quantities of these elements are found on the Earth’s surface, but industry mines huge amounts, especially of fluorine (most often in the form of calcium fluoride).
Fluoride emissions from the iron and copper industries was a problem as early as 1850, poisoning crops, livestock and people. In 1933, according to Griffiths, the world’s "first major air pollution disaster" struck when several thousand people became sick and 60 died in Belgium’s Meuse Valley. The accident was blamed on airborne fluoride emissions.
"It was abundantly clear to both industry and government that U.S. industrial expansion would necessitate releasing millions of tons of waste fluoride into the environment," he writes.
Their biggest fear was that "if serious injury to people were established, lawsuits alone could prove devastating to companies, while public outcry could force industry-wide government regulations, billions in pollution-control costs, and even mandatory changes in high-fluoride raw materials and profitable technologies."
So in 1939, Gerald J. Cox, working for Alcoa (short for the Aluminum Company of America), proposed that fluoride be used to reduce cavities in children. After fluoridating lab rats, he concluded that fluoride reduced cavities and declared, "The case should be regarded as proved."
"The first public proposal that the U.S. should fluoridate its water supplies was made not by a doctor or a dentist, but by Cox, an industry scientist working for a company threatened by fluoride damage claims," Griffiths notes.
It was a brilliant piece of public relations, writes Griffith. "If fluoride could be introduced as a health-enhancing substance that should be added to the environment for the children’s sake, those opposing it would look like quacks and lunatics."
Industry was buoyant. Chemical Week, a publication for the chemistry industry, described the mood: "All over the country, slide rules are getting warm as waterworks engineers figure the cost of adding fluoride to their water supplies."
During World War II, aluminum production increased sharply for the war effort, as the material was used to produce fighters and bombers. Shortly after the war’s end, the federal government put its full weight behind water fluoridation.
In 1945, two Michigan cities were chosen to participate in a 15-year comparison study to determine whether fluoride was effective in fighting children’s cavities. Already, in 1946, six additional cities were permitted to fluoridate their water, and in 1947, 87 more were treated. The Michigan study was abandoned before it was half finished, as the government cited popular demand for fluoridation.
In the 1950s, notes nutrition writer Gary Null, fluoridated toothpastes were required to carry warnings "saying that they were not to be used in areas where water was already fluoridated." The warnings were dropped in 1958.
Fluoridation: Does it Do Much Good?
It isn’t even clear that water fluoridation has much of an impact on reducing cavities. Colquhoun, the former principal dental officer in Auckland, became a critic of fluoridation when he examined worldwide data, and concluded that there is little or no difference in tooth decay rates between fluoridated and non-fluoridated places.
In fact, Colquhoun notes, one 30-year study of 400,000 children in India shows that tooth decay increases as fluoride intake increases. Tooth decay, the team decided, "results from a deficiency of calcium and an excess of fluoride."
Colquhoun speculated at first that other uses of fluoride besides water fluoridation must be behind the lower rates of tooth decay in the developed world. But he found that in non-fluoridated areas of Auckland, where tooth decay was also declining rapidly, few children used fluoride toothpaste and hardly any were given fluoride tablets. National New Zealand figures revealed that tooth decay had started to decline well before the beginning of fluoridation.
"So what did cause this decline, which we find in most industrialized countries? I do not know the answer for sure," writes Colquhoun, "but we do know that after the second world war there was a rise in the standard of living of many people. In my country there has been a tremendous increase in the consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables since the 1930s, assisted by the introduction of household refrigerators."
"The influence of general nutrition in protection against tooth decay has been well described in the past," he adds, "but is largely ignored by the fluoride enthusiasts."
The ADA, on the other hand, says "the effectiveness of water fluoridation has been documented in the scientific literature for well over 50 years." In 1993, 113 studies of 23 countries were analyzed. The studies, according to the ADA, showed a 40 to 49 percent decay reduction in baby teeth, and a 50 to 59 percent reduction in adult teeth.
Colquhoun also reviewed the many studies, published in professional dental journals, claiming a benefit to teeth from water fluoride. He argues that communities are often selected with bias for these studies to boost pro-fluoride arguments.
EPA scientist Hirzy, writing for the 1,200-member union, adds that "there has not been any double-blind study of fluoride’s effectiveness as a (cavities) preventative. There have been many, many small scale, selective publications on this issue that proponents cite to justify fluoridation."
The largest and most comprehensive study, by dentists trained by the National Institute of Dental Research, examined 39,000 children aged 5 to 17. It "shows no significant differences" in cavities between fluoridated, non-fluoridated and partially fluoridated communities, Hirzy notes.
And recent studies in the Journal of Dental Research suggest that tooth decay rates in Western Europe have declined as much as they have in the U.S., even though Western Europe is 98 percent non-fluoridated.
"For governmental and other organizations to continue to push for more exposure in the face of current levels of overexposure coupled with an increasing crescendo of adverse toxicity findings is irrational and irresponsible at best," writes Hirzy.
The EPA union’s conclusion? "The implication for the general public of these calculations is clear. Recent, peer-reviewed toxicity data, when applied to EPA’s standard method for controlling risks from toxic chemicals, require an immediate halt to the use of the nation’s drinking water reservoirs as disposal sites for the toxic waste of the phosphate fertilizer industry."
"Would you brush your teeth with arsenic?" Dr. Robert Carton, a former scientist with the EPA, asked Salon, the online magazine in 1999. "Fluoride is somewhat less toxic than arsenic and more toxic than lead, and you wouldn’t put either of them in your mouth."
Most of the water in the Puget Sound region is fluoridated. Seattle Public Utilities supplies drinking water to more than 1.3 million people in the Seattle-King County area, and fluoridates the water to a target of one part per million. Olympia, Bellingham, Bremerton and Spokane have rejected fluoridation.
If you want to avoid drinking fluoridated water, you might purchase a water distilling or reverse osmosis system, or purchase bottled or distilled water from the grocery store. Conventional filters don’t remove fluoride. You might also consider brushing with a non-fluoridated toothpaste by Tom’s of Maine, or one of the other manufacturers whose brands you’ll find in local health food stores.
Experts especially caution that parents should not use fluoridated water for baby formula, since babies are most sensitive to fluoride’s effects.
"I purchase distilled water at a local drugstore and we use it for all our beverage needs," Limeback told the Toronto Sunday Star. "Look, I’ve been drinking fluoride for 35 years and I’m worried. I have joint problems which cleared up when I switched to non-fluoridated water….Fluoride is a pollutant, so why would you want to swallow that stuff?"