From time to time over the years, Iíve heard people going on about the dangers of fluoride in the water–from obscure health risks to government conspiracies intended to keep the population compliant. I have always dismissed these as wild, paranoid theories; after all, the CDC has listed fluoride in the water as one of the greatest health innovations of the 20th century.
My facile dismissal of the issue may also have had something to do with the funny scene in the movie “Dr. Strangelove” in which General Jack D. Ripper says that fluoride in the water is an “international communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.” That’s probably the best way to defuse concerns about government policy: Make the people who question or oppose it look like goofball nutcases.
Recently, however, I decided to actually look up the data on fluoridation and see what was there. I was surprised to find that the benefits of fluoridated water are not so clear cut as we’ve been led to believe. The studies used to support fluoridation are not as high-quality as they might be, and the risks (mottling of the teeth) are not negligible. Mass fluoridation of the water supply may have prevented some cavities, maybe even enough to justify the CDC’s bold proclamation. On the other hand, better nutrition, better toothbrushes, and more emphasis on dental hygiene may be responsible.
The most common and established side-effect of fluoride is mottling of the teeth. The risks are increased because fluoride is not only in the water, but in any food or drink made with water. We don’t always know how much we are getting.
My survey of the fluoride situation didnít raise serious alarms, however. The risk/benefit ratio may not be all that impressive, but the harms donít seem that bad, either. My children drank fluoridated water throughout their childhoods–and lots of it–and their teeth seem fine and neither has had a cavity. However, after looking over the issue, it does seem strange that a society would medicate a large portion of the population (not all water systems are fluoridated and not all citizens are on municipal water) through the water supply–especially when the benefits of the “treatment” are weak.
In 2000, Douglas Carnall, editor of the British Medical Journal, wrote, “Professionals who propose compulsory preventive measures for a whole population have a different weight of responsibility on their shoulders than those who respond to the requests of individuals for help. Previously neutral on the issue, I am now persuaded by the arguments that those who wish to take fluoride (like me) had better get it from toothpaste rather than the water supply.”
Whatever fluoride does or does not do, it seems not to have made Dr. Carnall too compliant.
Fluoride, however, may be small beer when it comes to compulsory medication: Stay tuned for more on folate in your cereal.