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-----Fear of fluoride
BY MARK HERTSGAARD AND PHILLIP FRAZER | Have you read the fine print on your toothpaste tube recently? Check it out. If your toothpaste contains fluoride -- which nearly every brand in the United States does -- there's a consumer advisory message that might surprise and alarm you, especially if you're the parent of young children.
The advisory, which began appearing on fluoridated toothpaste in April 1997, by order of the Food and Drug Administration, begins with the familiar command to brush thoroughly at least twice a day. But then it includes special instructions for children ages two to six: "Use only a pea sized amount and supervise child's brushing and rinsing (to minimize swallowing)." Then comes an additional warning to keep the toothpaste "out of the reach of children under 6 years of age," and finally the ominous advice, "In case of accidental ingestion ... contact a Poison Control Center immediately."
What's going on here? Isn't toothpaste supposed to be good for us? Haven't we been told for decades -- by the government, by the American Dental Association, by countless Crest and Colgate television commercials -- that fluoride is essential to fighting cavities? Isn't that why nearly two-thirds of the public water supplies in the United States are fluoridated?
A recent issue of the new environmental newsletter News on Earth challenges this and other fluoride orthodoxies. Fluoride is, after all, an extremely toxic compound that originally was sold as a bug and rat poison. A growing body of scientific research suggests that long-term fluoride consumption may cause numerous health problems, ranging from cancer and impaired brain function to brittle bones and fluorosis (the white splotches on teeth that indicate weak enamel). An estimated 22 percent of American children have some form of fluorosis.
Research is also beginning to show that the cavity-fighting power of fluoride may have been overstated. Recent studies in the Journal of Dental Research conclude that tooth decay rates in Western Europe, which is 98 percent unfluoridated, have declined as much as they have in the United States in recent decades. Indeed, it's only in the United States that fluoride is championed by the government; most European nations -- including Germany, France, Sweden and Holland -- prohibit fluoride on public health grounds.
Opposition to fluoride was once confined to far-right conspiracy buffs, as parodied in the movie Dr. Strangelove. But the new evidence against fluoride comes from credentialed scientists in such mainstream institutions as the Environmental Protection Agency and Harvard's Forsyth Research Institute. And where water fluoridation was once a liberal cause, opposition to fluoride now comes from the left, specifically some environmental groups and at least one labor union. Local 2050 of the National Federation of Federal Employees, which represents all the scientists, engineers and other professionals at EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C., has voted unanimously to co-sponsor a citizens' petition to prevent fluoridation of California's waters. (Local 2050 has also filed a grievance asking for bottled water at EPA headquarters, due to fears about fluoride.) The union's letter endorsing the petition, sent in 1997, read in part:
"Our members' review of the body of evidence over the past eleven years, including animal and human epidemiology studies, indicates a causal link between fluoride/fluoridation and cancer, genetic damage, neurological impairment, and bone pathology. Of particular concern are recent epidemiology studies linking fluoride exposure to lower IQ in children ... there is substantial evidence of adverse health effects, and contrary to public perception, virtually no evidence of significant benefits."
"Would you brush your teeth with arsenic?" asks Dr. Robert Carton, a former scientist at the Environmental Protection Agency whose union is Local 2050. "Fluoride is somewhat less toxic than arsenic and more toxic than lead, and you wouldn't want either of them in your mouth."
Nevertheless, the official momentum behind fluoride is considerable. The Clinton administration's stated goal is to increase the number of Americans with fluoridated tap water from 62 percent today to 75 percent by 2000. The National Institute of Health supports this target. "We are for water fluoridation, of course, 100 percent," says Sally Wilberding of NIH's National Dental Research Institute. The same goes for the American Dental Association.
"I'm a very big supporter of appropriate use of fluorides," says Dr. John Stamm, dean of the School of Dentistry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an official fluoride spokesman for the ADA. Stamm argues that fluoridation has significantly decreased tooth decay in the United States over the past 50 years. He attributes Western Europeans' shunning of fluoridation to "cultural differences" in the approach to dental care.
Fluoride's positive image in the United States may rest in part on the whitewashing of unwelcome research findings and the firing of scientists who dared question fluoride's benefits. Dr. William Marcus, formerly the chief toxicologist for the EPA's Office of Drinking Water, lost his job in 1991 after he insisted on an unbiased evaluation of fluoride's potential to cause cancer. Marcus fought his dismissal in court, proved that it was politically motivated and eventually won reinstatement. Marcus now declines comment on the episode beyond saying, "I was right about fluoride's carcinogenicity, and now we know that." An investigation by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in 1991 supported Marcus' charges, documenting that government scientists had been coerced to change their findings and portray fluoride more favorably.
N E X T+P A G E+| Research results "adjusted" by Public Health Service
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