Better living through fluoride

Spraying DDT on Jones Beach, Long Island, 1953.

Public health authorities now know better than to spray DDT on kids at the beach. Will they soon feel the same way about adding fluoride to public water supplies?

Before Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring came out in 1962, America was a simpler place where “Better Living Through Chemistry” wasn’t an album by Fat Boy Slim or a snarky T shirt for urban hipsters. It was a DuPont corporate slogan that became an optimistic motto for promoting everything from spraying kids directly with DDT to  marketing food that didn’t spoil.

According to The Case Against Fluoride: How Hazardous Waste Ended Up in Our Drinking Water and the Bad Science and Powerful Politics That Keep It There, adding fluoride, a by-product of phosphate fertilizer manufacturing, to municipal water supplies came out of America’s post-World War II love affair with applying science to daily life:

In 1950, when fluoridation began in the United States, DDT, PCBs, tetraethyl lead (a gasoline additive), asbestos, and fluoride were considered safe by scientists and government officials. Except for fluoride, all have been banned.

Guilt by association may not be enough to indict a practice that the Centers for Disease Control has included with vaccination, safer workplaces and family planning as one of the Ten Great Public Health Achievements of the Twentieth Century.

The Case Against Fluoride book cover

The Case Against Fluoride: How Hazardous Waste Ended Up in Our Drinking Water and the Bad Science and Powerful Politics That Keep It There by Paul Connett, James Beck and HS Micklem, Chelsea Green, 372 pp, $24.95.

But fluoridation’s history does help to explain how a substance originally considered poisonous and still treated both as a contaminant by the EPA and as an untested drug by the FDA is not filtered out of community water supplies, but instead, poured into them.

Public health sold out to industry

Unless you’re an anti-fluoride activist or a health professional, you’ll want to skim the many summaries of research studies the make up the bulk of this book but add credibility to its claims.

If you just read the beginning and the end, you can get the gist of the story: the desire of Alcoa and other companies to avoid lawsuits from residents near aluminum and fertilizer plants related to fluoride poisoning turned into a scheme to convince the US Public Health Service to bless fluoride as a modern dental miracle in 1950, thus ensuring copy-cat endorsements from both the American Dental Association and the American Medical Association.

Six decades later, the evidence for fluoride’s ability to fight cavities remains weak while fears of its potential danger to children, the elderly and other vulnerable groups have grown, particularly after a 2006 study by the National Research Council “reported that fluoride was associated with damage to the teeth, bone, and endocrine system and possibly caused bone cancer.” Further studies have linked fluoride to lowered IQ and bone problems in children.

Meanwhile, authors Connett, Beck and Micklem claim that only politics and the fear of lawsuits by polluters and makers of dental products keep fluoride in our public water supplies today.

Conspiracy theory?

I’d heard that some people didn’t like fluoride in water, but I always associated them with the kind of crank parodied in Dr Strangelove (the film’s Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper tries to start a nuclear war to stop government interference with “our precious bodily fluids”) who saw community fluoridation as a nefarious plot to reduce the population. So I never paid the issue much mind.

But The Case Against Fluoride offered enough to finally convince me to start drinking filtered water. The main points:

  • Outside of the United States, which fluoridates 70% of its citizens, few countries add fluoride to their public water supplies. Some nations, such as the Czech Republic, have recently cancelled existing fluoridation programs, citing concerns about safety and effectiveness, while Ireland has begun a campaign to do the same. And non-fluoride countries’ teeth haven’t suffered for it. Industrialized nations that don’t fluoridate their drinking water, including most European nations, boast cavity rates comparable to or lower than those in the U.S.
  • When transported from fertilizer plants, fluoride must, by law, be handled as a toxic waste. But as soon as it makes its way to water treatment plants, it somehow is transformed into a beneficial water additive. It’s illegal to dump fluoride in rivers or lakes unless it passes through humans first. And if they couldn’t sell it to municipal water plants, companies would have to dispose of fluoride in EPA-approved landfills.
  • Unlike chlorine, which also has its detractors, fluoride is not added to water to prevent contagious disease. Instead, it’s a drug (though one that the FDA has never approved), administered without regard to dosage (people who drink more water get more fluoride and smaller people get the same dose as bigger ones) and without consent of the patient.
  • If you want fluoride, it’s readily available from toothpaste, mouthwash, dental treatments and other sources. Since less than 1% of fluoride in public water makes its way to human teeth, the rest is wasted on watering lawns, washing cars and flushing toilets, hardly a cost-effective way to deliver a medication.
  • Even dental researchers who believe that fluoride is effective to stop cavities think it only works in a topical application (eg, brushing your teeth or swishing with mouthwash). Researchers have now determined that systemic application (drinking the stuff) offers no benefit to the teeth.

Reading this book might make you into a water purity activist, willing to ask your city council to stop fluoridation, or it might just convince you to quietly switch your family to distilled water. Either way, once you know the facts, it’s hard to go back.

— Erik Curren, Transition Voice

You might also enjoy


  1. says

    In 50 years time, people will loo back in horror at what people used to inject into their bodies, whether it’s flouride, mercury in fillings, plastics, pesticides, you name it. Tests on kids in the Western world today show high levels of chemical toxicity, let alone grown ups who have endured years of poisoning. Is it any wonder that cancer cases are rising?

    • says

      It can be overwhelming when you think of all the toxics we unintentionally take into our bodies, whether pollution from industry or fossil fuel transportation to pesticides on our food. But when you think that a poison is intentionally poured into water supplies, then it starts to feel like our public health system isn’t following the injunction to, above all, do no harm.

  2. Tim says

    “If you want fluoride, it’s readily available…”
    Does the book offer any opinion on the topical application approach ?

    • says

      Yes, a bit. Not surprisingly, they find studies that topical application might help teeth some but that, on the other side, swallowing too much of it from toothpaste or other products may be unhealthy.

  3. GRgal says

    There are millions of upset citizens who want artificial water fluoridation stopped vs. a handful of federal and state public health zealots who simply will not listen, are incapable of admitting error, and cannot be held democratically accountable.
    There is no debate on whether dental fluorosis on a child’s permanent incisors is caused by fluoride overdose in first year or so of life. The debate is that we say artificially fluoridated water is overdose, that overdose is harmful, and dental fluorosis is proof of systemic toxicity of the overdose to the developing child and therefore intolerable from an ethical viewpoint. But public health fluoridation pushers say overdose is harmless because this is “just cosmetic”; and they have the authority to cause this overdose and its irreversible visible consequence to children “for their own good”, or something equally sociopathic.

    • says

      It’s ironic that the 1940s push to fluoridate water came from the same researchers who had been studying dental fluorosis as a problem in the 1930s. The book describes this odd twist.

  4. Heather Gingerich says

    Excellent commentary! I only have one small correction that ALL CAREGIVERS OF BABIES should be aware of.
    “(people who drink more water get more fluoride and smaller people get the same dose as bigger ones)”.
    A “dose” (mg of F per kg body weight) is determined by dividing the concentration (mg F per litre of water) by body weight (kg), so “smaller people” are actually getting a larger dose than a bigger one from the same concentration. It is virtually impossible to stay under the Upper Limit dose of 50 ug/kg body weight if you are making up infant formula with fluoridated water. The amount of F in breastmilk is only 0.013 ppm and the powdered part of infant formula already has 0.14-0.24 ppm in it before you even add the water.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *