Bark worse than its bite, or too hard to swallow?
|July 23, 2012||Posted by Georgie Tindale under science|
Let’s take a minute to study these quotes:
“We are about to embark on a course of enforced mass poisoning”
“It has been blamed by doctors from the … National Health Federation for 35,000 cancer deaths every year”
“The first ever lawsuits against the US government’s nuclear bomb programme concerned this … ”
What do you think the old edition of The Ecologist is referring to? I can confidently assume that your answer was not the correct one: fluoride compounds in our drinking water.
This was headline news in the August 2003 edition, which I recently procured at a junk swap, and although I am by no means politically aligned with the magazine this article did make me think. Is there any reasoning behind these claims or is this simply more journalistic pop-science-scare-mongering?
Despite my initial scepticism I dove in and investigated the issue – this is still an argument worth considering nine years later, especially as countless disturbing pictures of discoloured teeth are available via Google Images and I know many families that use a filter to remove fluoride compounds from drinking water even without knowing exactly why they are doing so.
The reason fluoride compounds were once headline news in The Ecologist was that, “Mr Blair … [was] backing secret moves to force water companies to fluoridate our water,” in order to mimic the US and prevent tooth decay in the population of the UK. To me this sounds a fairly sensible idea: fluoridated water will create low levels of fluoride in the saliva and subsequently reduces the demineralisation of tooth enamel, leading to an 18-40% reduction in cavities in children who already use toothpaste. According to the article, however, fluoride compounds are not only “a useless medicine” but also “highly toxic” and linked to “cot death, eczema and Alzheimer’s” – although worryingly enough no scientific references have been cited for these claims.
But are these health implications still a danger to us today? Unfortunately it would seem so. A map published by the British Fluoridation Society shows that in the Republic of Ireland 60-80% of the population received fluoridated water at the recommended dose – both artificially and naturally – and in the UK 20-40% of the population received fluoridated water to that level at the time the map was produced.
Despite this, I would be much more concerned for our welfare if there was a significant, upstanding scientific basis behind the claims of damage to our health published in The Ecologist. There are vast numbers of articles online quoting dodgy science and making similarly bold claims, though this debate resurfaced as recently as 2011 in Canada when a vote by the Calgary city council showed a clear majority of people in favour of removing fluoride compounds from the drinking water.
CBC News spoke to two healthcare professionals about this and the anti-fluoridation doctor was far more convincing than the obviously exaggerated report in The Ecologist. Dr Robert C Dickson – a man who was leading the anti-fluoridation campaign in Calgary at the time – had this to say on the issue: “Fluoride does not work ingested, it works topically. Fluoridation does not work, it’s like trying to ingest your sunscreen. So let’s put it on our teeth … not inside our bodies where it causes a lot of harm.” The Systematic Review of Water Fluoridation, paid for by the Department of Health, which used 214 studies to pool its data, however, showed that although the “prevalence of mottled teeth is highly associated with the concentrations of fluoride in drinking water,” no association “of water fluoride with other adverse effects [such as Down’s syndrome and abnormal bone fractures] was found.”
As you can already tell, this superficially insignificant idea has caused a huge amount of controversy. A quick search for “anti-fluoride” will show you the breadth of fear and hatred that exists toward this well-intended proposal. Personally, from the evidence I have seen, I understand the fears completely but I think there is a good case for encouraging further use of water fluoridation. We must also bear in mind that there is already a naturally occurring source of fluoride compounds in a large proportion of the world’s drinking water – which would of course make the implementation of further fluoridation futile as this is often at or above the recommended level – and the recommended dose for artificially fluoridated water is low at 0.7-1.2mg/L. The problem of dental cavities is a major public health issue, affecting 60-90% of schoolchildren and the majority of adults in industrialised countries according to a report by the World Health Organisation. The Centers for Disease Control in the US named the process of water fluoridation as one of the 10 great public health achievements of the 20th century. Despite evidence both ways there will always be people who are afraid of things they can’t control, but I believe more awareness of this issue and more research by those people will show them that their fears of fluoridated water actually have little basis in fact.