Understanding the Anti-Fluoride Movement - Public Goods

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Understanding the Anti-Fluoride Movement

On September 29, 2018 acclaimed activist Erin Brockovich and her colleague, Bob Bowcock, stood before a town hall of citizens from Satellite Beach, Florida.

erin brockovich

The pair decided to visit after hearing about alarmingly high rates of cancer in the city. Brockovich, with support from several residents and local health professionals, argued on social media that toxic contaminants from discarded Air Force equipment were contributing to the epidemic.

Once the forum was open to audience participation, a woman named Linda stood up and took the microphone. She wanted Brockovich’s opinion on an issue she believed was related: water fluoridation, the practice of pouring fluoride — specifically hydrofluorosilicic acid — into municipal drinking water supplies because of the ingredient’s purported ability to safely and effectively reduce cavities. After mentioning her anti-fluoride activism efforts in the nearby town of Melbourne, Linda referred to fluoride as a “toxic waste product” and claimed it was linked to a host of health problems, including cancer and increased risk of ADHD.

Roughly 90% of the fluoride in our drinking water is a byproduct of phosphate fertilizer mining. This industry, ironically, has a negative impact on local water sources, according to a 2018 scientific review published in the International Journal of Hydrology.

There are no health benefits to ingesting fluoridated water. Fluoride only works topically, by coming into direct contact with teeth. Drinking fluoridated water does achieve this result to an extent, but it’s not the only way.

Because fluoride-based dental products have been ubiquitous for decades, many consumers are questioning whether it’s necessary to have the ingredient in their water. Even for people who agree that fluoride safely prevents cavities, toothpaste and mouthwash seem like more than enough to get the job done. There are also fluoride supplements people can buy and mix into their drinking water.

Regarding the impact of fluoride on human health, for decades the scientific community seemed like a monolith of solidarity in favor of water fluoridation. The Center for Disease Control [CDC], Environmental Protection Agency [EPA], American Dental Association, American Medical Association, Academy of General Dentistry, American Academy of Family Physicians, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry — all declared that fluoride was safe and effective.

In recent years, however, the divide between pro and anti-fluoride establishments has become more apparent. Cochrane, an organization that assesses the effectiveness of public health policies, determined that there has been “little contemporary evidence” to prove the dental value of fluoridating water, at least for adults. There have also been studies and scientific analyses that suggest high levels of fluoride could be linked to cancer, hormone disruption, the development of ADHD, bone weakening, adverse effects on neurological development in children and thyroid problems. Even pro-fluoride dentists and government bodies acknowledge that fluorosis, a dental disease caused by overexposure to fluoride, is a legitimate public health issue.

It’s likely that Linda had browsed this research while forming her opinion on water fluoridation. Brockovich responded to her concerns by making it clear she is against the policy.

“We don’t condone adding toxic substances to our water as a way to medicate the people,” Brockovich said. “The less chemicals in the water, the better.”

Bowcock, the founder of a progressive water management firm, chimed in and reiterated that both he and Brockovich are staunch opponents of using public drinking water to “distribute any substance for the purpose of achieving a medical result.”

“I’ve never met a drinking water professional in North America who thinks the addition of fluoride to the drinking water is their business,” he said. “They are abhorred by the practice.”

He concluded by saying, “Water fluoridation is bad. It’s a bad practice, and it needs to stop.”

The crowd applauded.

Melissa Gallico, another anti-water fluoridation activist, filmed the exchange and posted an edited video to her YouTube channel. In the video description Gallico linked to the Change.org petition she started to demand that congress stop the Department of Health and Human Services from promoting fluoridation. The campaign is addressed to the Senate Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, and Drinking Water that includes several well-known “decision makers” such as Sen. Bernie Sanders and Tammy Duckworth.

The petition has been active for more than three years and has grown steadily. Currently there are more than 3,000 signatories.

Also in the video description, Gallico highlighted the fact that, at the time of her posting, there were no other videos on YouTube that showed Brockovich opposing fluoride.

“On February 1, 2016, [Brockovich] appeared on The Dr. Oz Show to voice her opposition to the practice and warn Americans of potential negative side effects from drinking artificially fluoridated water,” Gallico wrote. “All videos of her appearance were removed from the Internet and the clip of her segment was deleted from The Dr. Oz Show web page for the episode.”

The show’s site replaced the video with a pro-fluoride statement from the Harvard School of Dental Medicine.

Brockovich began making public statements against water fluoridation in 2015. One of these statements is hosted on the Fluoride Action Network, a popular anti-fluoride website and community of more than 80,000 activists. For nearly three years the organization has legally pressured the EPA to ban water fluoridation.

One of the most powerful motivations for Brockovich to join the debate came in the form of “Fluoridegate.” In 2015 federal health officials coordinated with dental industry representatives to suppress the news of a study that demonstrated water fluoridation had a disproportionately negative impact on the black community. The issue has since been a priority for civil rights leaders, including former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young and Dr. Alveda King, the niece of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

For many anti-fluoride activists, the scandal confirmed long-standing suspicions that the government and various corporations have conspired to advance a pro-fluoride agenda. In “The Fluoride Deception,” for example, investigative journalist Christopher Bryson presented evidence that corporate polluters have lobbied scientists and public health officials to claim fluoride is safe and effective.

Gallico, a former military intelligence officer and FBI analyst, also wrote a book about fluoride, but her story was personal. After struggling with cystic acne for nearly 20 years, she concluded that the underlying cause was excess fluoride in her diet. She began investigating the issue after traveling to countries without fluoridated water and seeing dramatic improvements in her symptoms.

Several months after the release of her book, Gallico created a private Facebook group for people with similar stories. More than 400 people have joined, and the community has also become a forum for discussing anti-fluoride activism in general.

In addition to Brockovich, another one of Gallico’s favorite anti-fluoride figures is Olivia Munn, who decided to avoid the chemical after experiencing similar problems with acne. Being against fluoride isn’t exactly trendy, but there are many celebrities who have voiced concerns. Some of the biggest names are Kate Hudson, Martin Sheen, Jeremy Irons, Joe Rogan, Tom Brady and Bill Maher, who interviewed Brockovich about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan.

Despite some of its anti-Communist roots, today opposing fluoridation is an issue that attracts people from both sides of the political spectrum. There are liberals who perceive water fluoridation as a corporate pollution scandal and epidemic, as well as conservatives who believe the government has no business adding chemicals to their water.

Water fluoridation should be a choice.

In spite of differences in ideology and motivation, there is at least one idea all opponents of fluoride agree on: Water fluoridation should be a choice. Rather than trusting the government to unilaterally implement the policy, citizens should be able to decide for themselves.

People across the country have been trying to change the system so they can make that choice. Since 2010 millions of people have organized to reject water fluoridation. The list of areas includes Portland and Wichita, as well as many cities in other countries.

In 2015 the U.S. Public Health Service lowered the recommended amount of fluoride in drinking water for the first time in 53 years. Based on this policy, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration [FDA] recently released a proposal to reduce fluoride in bottled water to the same level of 0.7 milligrams per liter.

Town halls, protests, rallies, petitions, lawsuits, studies, social media posts, op-eds, celebrity voices — maybe all of it has added up to make a difference.

But if the goal of the movement is to completely remove added fluoride from drinking water supplies, there is still a long way to go. In 2014 roughly 74% of the U.S. population was living in areas with fluoridated water, according to the CDC.

In addition to petitioning against 70 years of water fluoridation infrastructure, another obstacle activists face is smears and legitimate criticisms from pro-fluoride organizations and media outlets. Many of these groups have attempted to characterize anti-fluoride activists as nothing but anti-science conspiracy theorists and fear mongers.

The American Academy of Pediatrics sponsored an article that said “a handful of activists are working behind the scenes to spread fear and end this proven practice for protecting teeth from decay.” Published in 2013, the article reminded readers of the fact that Alex Jones, a far-right conspiracy theorist who has incited violence, has interviewed Fluoride Action Network Executive Director Paul Connett.

Also in 2013, the Guardian published an article titled “Anti-fluoride activists should put their tinfoil hat theories to rest.” The author, Michael Vagg, did make the distinction between anti-fluoride activists with health and industry corruption concerns versus those who believe fluoride is a government mind control tactic. Nonetheless, he dismissed all of these types of people as delusional, annoying and wrong.

Politico Contributor Addy Baird wrote that anti-fluoride activists were part of “liberal fringes.” He reported on a town hall with members of the movement who were difficult to take seriously, including a nutritionist who touted the popular conspiracy theory that the Nazis used fluoride to keep their people docile.

Even pop culture has portrayed people against water fluoridation as paranoid and deranged. In the classic satire, “Dr. Strangelove,” the unhinged General Jack D. Ripper rants about how fluoridation is a “monstrously conceived and dangerous Communist plot.” The movie may have premiered in 1964, but Gallico said she encounters the reference during her current work.

At this point it’s difficult to surmise what percentage of activists are more like Gallico — well-spoken and informed by legitimate research — versus conspiracy theorists and controversial associates such as Alex Jones. The existence of the latter has made it easy for pro-fluoridation groups and publications to invalidate the movement and compare it to anti-vaccination.

One of the most effective methods of defending against denigration, Gallico said, is to highlight the fact that scientists, public health officials and medical professionals have been leaders in the anti-fluoridation movement. Dr. George Waldbott, a pioneer in the study of allergies, wrote “Fluoridation: The Great Dilemma” and conducted studies on sensitivity to fluoride. Robert Carton and William Hirzy, scientists and former presidents of EPA unions, opposed fluoridation for decades. Former International Academy of Oral Medicine and Toxicology President David Kennedy has denounced the policy as well. Perhaps the most notable person is the late Nobel Prize-winning pharmacologist Arvid Carlsson who said fluoridation was “obsolete.”

There are also dentists who challenge the validity of the research supporting water fluoridation. Dr. Hardy Limeback, the former Head of the Department of Preventive Dentistry at the University of Toronto, explained that none of the studies in favor of fluoridated water have been double-blinded randomized clinical control trials. This method of evidence collection tends to neutralize bias and, Limeback said, is usually necessary for the approval of medications. Some scientists refer to this approach as “the gold standard” of research.

Because of these voices, it’s become more difficult for pro-fluoride parties to frame the debate as a minority of quacks versus the rational majority. The movement is gaining momentum, and the people with power are starting to listen.

In May Brockovich and her colleagues visited Washington D.C. They attended the first National Summit on Waterborne Diseases, an event that included government officials and EPA employees.

The next day Brockovich posted about fluoride on her Facebook page, calling it a “neurotoxin.” Hundreds of followers commented, reacted and shared, echoing her dreams of drinking water without added fluoride.

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Comments (21)

  • One question that wasn’t addressed in this article: Did the addition of fluoride in the nation’s drinking water cause a decline in tooth decay? One can say that decline doesn’t matter, or that it’s not worth it, but for this article to have been fair, it should have been mentioned.

    • That’s a good point. On Monday I am going to start working on adding a paragraph or two that will address that question.

    • There is no credible evidence that taking fluoride in water has ever prevented a single dental cavity. The forced-fluoridation fanatics often try to claim that the low rates of dental caries in western European countries which do not have artificially fluoridated public water supplies are due to naturally occurring fluoride in water, or some other kind of artificial fluoridation such as salt fluoridation. They are lying. They also rely on studies which do not measure individual fluoride exposure, are not randomised, are not blinded, are not clinical trials, do not properly account for confounding factors, are highly prone to systematic error, and are typically funded by corporations such as Colgate-Palmolive.

  • You sell toothpaste without fluoride. Removing fluoride from the water will hurt your customers specifically.

    • We don’t think removing fluoride from drinking water would hurt our customers because our toothpaste contains xylitol, an ingredient that reduces cavities without the negative effects that might be associated with fluoride.

      • Why choose xylitol though when there are other alternative ingredients that work better (even if it’s not to the standard of fluoride)? I’ve only been researching this for a couple hours but it seems that chlorhexidine gluconate (the active ingredient in many mouthwashes) and methylglyoxal (an important ingredient in manuka honey that gives it higher antibacterial properties than other types of honey) are both more effective at reducing the efficacy of the bacteria in plaque.

        • That’s a good question! I forwarded your feedback to our product development team. Maybe they will have an answer.

        • I am reminded of the time MCDonald’s swapped out lead paint for the lesser-known toxin of cadmium.
          The anti-fluoridation movement has me quite skeptical. Contrary to what the article reads, it is in fact very trendy, and that’s a real red alarm for me. I’d need a high standard of proof to turn around my thoughts on one of history’s most famous health successes.

          • There is a lot of controversy over topical use of fluoride children have died from it and there’s no evidence that topical chloride protects adult teeth nobody died from lack of fluoride but people have died because of fluoride and there is some evidence that fluoride in and of itself lowers IQ, and causes other damage to skin and kidneys and liver and high concentrations not to mention the cosmetic effects of naturally occurring fluoride in water staining teeth and weakening enamel

      • Actually there is some evidence that xylitol which is a sugar does not prevent decay but can cause it there’s other evidence that shows that toothpaste is not necessary to clean your teeth brushing with your own saliva is the most protective thing you can do

  • As stated in the above blog. There is no question, there is no controversy over the benefits of topically used fluoride. The topical application of fluoride prevents cavities (period). So why don’t you have it in your toothpaste? It is the ONLY active ingredient in toothpaste. Toothpaste without fluoride is just a waste of money – pointless.

    • There actually is a controversy over the topical benefits of fluoride. I didn’t include that research in the article because it seemed like anti-fluoride activists were much more concerned with policy and negative health effects than benefits. Now I’m realizing I should add at least one paragraph on whether fluoridation is effective. On Monday I will start working on those revisions.

      As for our toothpaste, we use xylitol, an alternative ingredient that also reduces cavities but is not as controversial as fluoride.

      Thank you for the feedback!

    • I have used fluoride free toothpaste for years and my dental health has actually improved drastically. I use Neem and xylitol based toothpastes and have never had a single cavity or sign or tooth or gum decay.

      • Thank you for the feedback, Caroline! As a token of our appreciation, here is a coupon code for $5 off an order on Public Goods: PGBLOGFAM. We sell fluoride-free toothpaste btw.

  • Thank you for not adding fluoride to your toothpaste. There are PLENTY of other sources available for fluoride products in the marketplace. I appreciate the right to choose products without fluoride. Being able to choose fluoride free water would also be greatly appreciated.

  • This is a pretty good article, but please don’t refer to forced-fluoridation as having “access to fluoridated water”. It makes it sound like people are being done a favour and being given a choice, when the reality is the opposite. It is a propaganda phrase used by perpetrators of forced-fluoridation.

    Referring to opponents of forced-fluoridation as either liberals or conservatives is a false dichotomy. Some of us are revolutionaries who do not agree with capitalist pseudodemocracy at all.

    The idea of activists being “well-spoken and informed by legitimate research” or “conspiracy theorists” is also a false dichotomy. There are many people who are actively and legitimately opposed to forced-fluoridation on human rights grounds and are not conspiracy theorists, but who are not really informed by research because they either haven’t read much of it or don’t have the education required to understand it. I happen to have a science education and have read a lot of the research, but the activism of such people is just as valid as mine or anyone else’s.

    • That’s a good point! I just changed the wording regarding the “access” issue. You’re right that it’s not access if people don’t have a choice or need to go out of their way to filter.

      I’m sorry if it seemed like I was trying to establish false dichotomies. That definitely wasn’t my intention. I will ruminate on how to address that issue.

      • Cheers. Avoiding wording which is unintentionally misleading is not easy. It’s good that you are open to constructive criticism.

  • Is this article about “understanding” the movement or is it about supporting it? With terms like “rational majority” and defense of the movement against “smears” and being labeled “quacks”, it sure seems like this blog entry is in support of the movement.

    All of that is not even withstanding the omission of the benefits of fluoridated water, a topic in which the third paragraph oddly contradicts itself. In addition, there’s no counter-statement outlining just how much water it’d take to chase fluorosis at various weight levels. That’d be useful information, as well.

    It would be better to outright state the support rather than couch it in terms of “understanding,” which implies an objective view.

  • I came to check out this article to see if it was sketchy pseudo-science promotion and instead learned a lot and will be sharing! Considering the last time I commented, I am really happy.

  • If only 74% of the United States has fluoride in there water then it should be easy to list the diseases those people have that the other 26% of the population does not have. Small studies are pointless when we have a dataset of 360 million people.

    So what are those diseases?

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