“We would not purposely add arsenic to the water supply. And we would not purposely add lead. But we do add fluoride. The fact is that fluoride is more toxic than lead and just slightly less toxic than arsenic.” (1)
These words of Dr. John Yiamouyiannis may come as a shock to you because, if you’re like most Americans, you have positive associations with fluoride. You may envision tooth protection, strong bones, and a government that cares about your dental needs. What you’ve probably never been told is that the fluoride added to drinking water and toothpaste is a crude industrial waste product of the aluminum and fertilizer industries, and a substance toxic enough to be used as rat poison. How is it that Americans have learned to love an environmental hazard? This phenomenon can be attributed to a carefully planned marketing program begun even before Grand Rapids, Michigan, became the first community to officially fluoridate its drinking water in 1945.(2) As a result of this ongoing campaign, nearly two-thirds of the nation has enthusiastically followed Grand Rapids’ example. But this push for fluoridation has less to do with a concern for America’s health than with industry’s penchant to expand at the expense of our nation’s well-being.
The first thing you have to understand about fluoride is that it’s the problem child of industry. Its toxicity was recognized at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, when, in the 1850s iron and copper factories discharged it into the air and poisoned plants, animals, and people.(3)
In the early years of the 20th Century, a young dentist named Frederick McKay settled in Colorado Springs, Colorado. There he discovered that as many as 90% of lifetime residents of the town had grotesque brown stains on their teeth, and that the tooth enamel had an irregular surface texture described as “mottled”. Locals referred to the familiar condition as Colorado Brown Stain, but no one had a clue as to its cause. Over the next two decades Dr. McKay, later with the help of dental researcher G. V. Black, proved that the cause was something contaminating the water supply. They also speculated that the affected teeth might be somewhat more resistant to decay. (4)
By the 1920’s, rapid industrial growth had exacerbated the problems of industrial pollution, and fluoride was one of the biggest problems. Medical writer Joel Griffiths explains that “it was abundantly clear to both industry and government that spectacular U.S. industrial expansion — and the economic and military power and vast profits it promised — would necessitate releasing millions of tons of waste fluoride into the environment.”(5) 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.”(6)
In 1931, by means of photo-spectrographic analysis of McKay and Black’s water samples conducted at the laboratories at the Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA), it was confirmed that the cause of the mottled teeth was fluoride in the water supply. ALCOA took a proprietary interest in this issue, since fluoride is a major waste product of aluminum production. The company wanted to know how much fluoride exposure people could tolerate without getting mottled, discolored teeth. Or, more specifically, how much fluoride could ALCOA release into the nation’s earth, water, and air without the public realizing that the company was polluting the environment with a powerful toxin?(7)
That question was to be addressed later that same year, when H. Trendley Dean was sent to study water sources in 345 Texas communities. Dean, a former dental surgeon for the US Public Health Service, was then head of the Dental Hygiene Unit of the National Institute of Health. (Dean’s overseer and mentor at the USPHS had been Treasury Secretary Andrew W. Mellon, a founder and major stockholder of ALCOA.) Based on his own research, Dean claimed that “fluoride levels of up to 1.0 ppm in drinking water did not cause mottled enamel; if the fluoride exceeded this level, however, fluorosis would occur.”(8)
Now Dean remembered McKay and Black’s claims that fluorosis victims mottled, discolored teeth were especially resistant decay. He came up with the notion that fluoride added to the water supply at the magic threshold dosage of 1 ppm would prevent tooth decay, while avoiding damage to bones and teeth.(9) He recommended further studies to determine whether his hypothesis was true.
Griffiths continues: “Back at the Mellon Institute, ALCOA’s Pittsburgh industrial research lab, this news was galvanic. There, biochemist Gerald J. Cox immediately fluoridated some lab rats in a study and concluded that fluoride reduced cavities and that: “The case should be regarded as proved.” In a historic moment in 1939, the first public proposal that the U.S. should fluoridate its water supplies was made not by a doctor, or dentist, but by Cox, an industry scientist working for a company threatened by fluoride damage claims and burdened by the odious expense of disposing of tons of toxic industrial waste. Cox began touring the country, stumping for fluoridation.(10)
Dean would go on to carve out a nice career for himself as the “father” of public water fluoridation. He became the first dental scientist at the National Institute of Health, advancing to director of the dental research section in 1945. After World War II, he directed epidemiological studies for the Army in Germany. When Congress established the National Institute of Dental Research (NIDR) in 1948, Dean was appointed its director, a position he held until retiring in 1953.(11) In his post at the NIDR, he was to oversee the first clinical trial of fluoridation in an American city, Grand Rapids Michigan.(12)
With those impressive credentials, wouldn’t you think a man of science like Dean could be trusted? Think again. The truth is that Dean’s great discovery was based on wishful thinking and some very shaky science, as documented by healthy advocate Andreas Schuld(13). Dean’s findings did not stand up to scientific scrutiny at all. An independent study of his results revealed that he had engaged in “selective use of data,” employing figures from 21 cities that confirmed his findings, and ignoring those from 272 other localities that didn’t. (14) In a 1955 court case challenging fluoridation, Dean admitted under oath that his published conclusions were wrong.(15) In hearings conducted by the AMA in 1957, he was forced to admit that dental fluorosis, the first sign of fluoride overdose, could be caused by water fluoridated at 1.0 ppm.(16) But these admissions were not widely publicized, and they were never acknowledged by the USPHS, the American Dental Association, or the other governmental bodies responsible for foisting fluoride on the public. They continued to play the classic denial game: “act like nothing’s wrong.” And they are still doing it to this very day.
At first, industry could dispose of fluoride legally only in small amounts by selling it to insecticide and rat poison manufacturers. (17) But Dean’s “discovery,” paved the way for a commercial outlet for the toxin. Griffiths writes that this was not a scientific breakthrough, but rather part of a “public disinformation campaign” by the aluminum industry “to convince the public that fluoride was safe and good,” Industry’s need prompted Alcoa-funded scientist Gerald J. Cox to announce that “The present trend toward complete removal of fluoride from water may need some reversal.”(18) Griffiths writes:
“The big news in Cox’s announcement was that this ‘apparently worthless by-product’ had not only been proved safe (in low doses), but actually beneficial; it might reduce cavities in children. A proposal was in the air to add fluoride to the entire nation’s drinking water. While the dose to each individual would be low, ‘fluoridation’ on a national scale would require the annual addition of hundreds of thousands of tons of fluoride to the country’s drinking water.
“Government and industry – especially Alcoa – strongly supported intentional water fluoridation…[it] made possible a master public relations stroke – one that could keep scientists and the public off fluoride’s case for years to come. If the leaders of dentistry, medicine, and public health could be persuaded to endorse fluoride in the public’s drinking water, proclaiming to the nation that there was a ‘wide margin of safety,’ how were they going to turn around later and say industry’s fluoride pollution was dangerous?
“As for the public, 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….
“Back at the Mellon Institute, Alcoa’s Pittsburgh Industrial research lab, this news was galvanic. Alcoa-sponsored biochemist Gerald J. Cox immediately fluoridated some lab rats in a study and concluded that fluoride reduced cavities and that ‘The case should be regarded as proved.’ In a historic moment in 1939, the first public proposal that the U.S. should fluoridate its water supplies was made – not by a doctor, or dentist, but by Cox, an industry scientist working for a company threatened by fluoride damage claims.”(19)
Once the plan was put into action, industry was buoyant. They had finally found the channel for fluoride that they were looking for, and they were even cheered on by dentists, government agencies, and the public. Chemical Week, a publication for the chemical industry, described the tenor of the times: “All over the country, slide rules are getting warm as waterworks engineers figure the cost of adding fluoride to their water supplies.” They are riding a trend urged upon them, by the U.S. Public Health Service, the American Dental Association, the State Dental Health Directors, various state and local health bodies, and vocal women’s clubs from coast to coast. It adds up to a nice piece of business on all sides and many firms are cheering the PHS and similar groups as they plump for increasing adoption of fluoridation.” (20)
Such overwhelming acceptance allowed government and industry to proceed hastily, albeit irresponsibly. The Grand Rapids experiment was supposed to take 15 years, during which time health benefits and hazards were to be studied. In 1946, however, just one year into the experiment, six more U.S. cities adopted the process. By 1947, 87 more communities were treated; popular demand was the official reason for this unscientific haste.
The general public and its leaders did support the cause, but only after a massive government public relations campaign spearheaded by Edward L. Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud. Bernays, a public relations pioneer who has been called “the original spin doctor,”(21) was a masterful PR strategist. As a result of his influence, Griffiths writes, “Almost overnight…the popular image of fluoride — which at the time was being widely sold as rat and bug poison — became that of a beneficial provider of gleaming smiles, absolutely safe, and good for children, bestowed by a benevolent paternal government. Its opponents were permanently engraved on the public mind as crackpots and right-wing loonies.”(22)
Griffiths explains that while opposition to fluoridation is usually associated with right-wingers, this picture is not totally accurate. He provides an interesting historical perspective on the anti-fluoridation stance:
“Fluoridation attracted opponents from every point on the continuum of politics and sanity. The prospect of the government mass-medicating the water supplies with a well-known rat poison to prevent a nonlethal disease flipped the switches of delusionals across the country – as well as generating concern among responsible scientists, doctors, and citizens.
“Moreover, by a fortuitous twist of circumstances, fluoride’s natural opponents on the left were alienated from the rest of the opposition. Oscar Ewing, a Federal Security Agency administrator, was a Truman “fair dealer” who pushed many progressive programs such as nationalized medicine. Fluoridation was lumped with his proposals. Inevitably, it was attacked by conservatives as a manifestation of “creeping socialism,” while the left rallied to its support. Later during the McCarthy era, the left was further alienated from the opposition when extreme right-wing groups, including the John Birch Society and the Ku Klux Klan, raved that fluoridation was a plot by the Soviet Union and/or communists in the government to poison America’s brain cells.
“It was a simple task for promoters, under the guidance of the ‘original spin doctor,’ to paint all opponents as deranged – and they played this angle to the hilt….
“Actually, many of the strongest opponents originally started out as proponents, but changed their minds after a close look at the evidence. And many opponents came to view fluoridation not as a communist plot, but simply as a capitalist-style con job of epic proportions. Some could be termed early environmentalists, such as the physicians George L. Waldbott and Frederick B. Exner, who first documented government-industry complicity in hiding the hazards of fluoride pollution from the public. Waldbott and Exner risked their careers in a clash with fluoride defenders, only to see their cause buried in toothpaste ads.” (23)
By 1950, fluoridation’s image was a sterling one, and there was not much science could do at this point. The Public Health Service was fluoridation’s main source of funding as well as its promoter, and therefore caught in a fundamental conflict of interest.(24) If fluoridation were found to be unsafe and ineffective, and laws were repealed, the organization feared a loss of face, since scientists, politicians, dental groups, and physicians unanimously supported it.(25) For this reason, studies concerning its effects were not undertaken. The Oakland Tribune noted this when it stated that “public health officials have often suppressed scientific doubts” about fluoridation. (26) Waldbott sums up the situation when he says that from the beginning, the controversy over fluoridating water supplies was “a political, not a scientific health issue.”(27)
The marketing of fluoride continues. In a 1983 letter from the Environmental Protection Agency, then Deputy Assistant Administrator for Water, Rebecca Hammer, writes that the EPA “regards [fluoridation] as an ideal environmental solution to a long-standing problem. By recovering by-product fluosilicic acid from fertilizer manufacturing, water and air pollution are minimized and water utilities have a low-cost source of fluoride available to them.”(28) More recently, a 1992 policy statement from the Department of Health and Human Services says, “A recent comprehensive PHS review of the benefits and potential health risks of fluoride has concluded that the practice of fluoridating community water supplies is safe and effective.”(29)
Today, nearly 250 million people worldwide drink fluoridated water, including about 130 million Americans in 9600 communities. Out of the 50 largest cities in the US, 41 have fluoridated water.(30)
To help celebrate fluoride’s widespread use, the media recently reported on the 50th anniversary of fluoridation in Grand Rapids. Newspaper articles titled “Fluoridation: a shining public health success”(31) and “After 50 years, fluoride still works with a smile”(32) painted glowing pictures of the practice. Had investigators looked more closely, though, they might have learned that children in Muskegon, Michigan, an unfluoridated “control” city, had equal drops in dental decay. They might also have learned of the other studies that dispute the supposed wonders of fluoride.