Fluoridation Under the Microscope
Conflicting opinions on the safety of what's in our water
Local anti-fluoridation activists brought in heavy scientific reinforcements last week, with several Austin appearances by Paul Connett, professor emeritus of environmental chemistry at St. Lawrence University, director of the Fluoride Action Network, and co-author of the recently released The Case Against Fluoride (Chelsea Green Publishing), in which he and two academic colleagues review the current science and institutional politics of the use of fluoride in municipal water systems. Connett spoke briefly at last Thursday's City Council meeting – the council has thus far declined to take up the issue directly – and that night lectured an audience of about 40 people at the University of Texas' Thompson Conference Center, followed by a panel discussion.
Lone Star Sierra Club Clean Air Program Director Neil Carman introduced Connett as a longtime friend and "an environmental hero around the world" for his successful international work against toxic waste incineration. Connett began by citing John Lennon: "Life is what happens [to you] when you're busy making other plans." By that he meant not only the many years he's spent as an environmental researcher and activist, but the personal reversals in his own initial support of both incineration and fluoridation. He noted, "I'm fairly respectable now when it comes to fighting incinerators and promoting alternatives, but hardly respectable when it comes to fighting fluoridation." Waste incineration, it's true, is a more readily definable public enemy; by contrast, the anti-fluoridation campaigners must fight not only a half-century of official scientific and political consensus that fluoridation of public water supplies has reduced tooth decay but the long-entrenched (and partly accurate) public image of fluoride opponents as loony conspiracy theorists.
In his nearly two-hour discourse, Connett succeeded better at overturning the former than the latter, reviewing much of the scientific literature to show that, especially in the last decade, the consensus has shifted to reflect that the maximum Environmental Protection Agency-recommended level of fluoride (currently four parts per million, though most cities including Austin use much less) should certainly be lowered and, beyond that, that it's time to seriously consider jettisoning the practice altogether. Connett argued persuasively that fluoridation is a poor (uninformed and unmonitorable) medical practice, that there is now considerable evidence of potentially major health risks (especially among vulnerable populations), and even more telling, that the accumulated evidence of fluoridation benefits is in fact quite weak. Indeed, Connett said, dental health correlates much more closely with family income than local fluoridation – presumably the subject of an entirely different public health campaign. Most European countries that once used fluoridation have abandoned the practice, and a 2006 study by the National Research Council called on the EPA to lower the recommended maximum. Connett demanded that the agency do its job.
Perhaps surprisingly, that call was echoed by panel member and LBJ School professor of environmental engineering David Eaton, who had accepted the evening's thankless task of responding to Connett. For his trouble, Eaton was basically used as a rhetorical punching bag by Connett, the other four panel members (all fluoridation opponents), and the audience. While willing to grant Connett's argument that fluoridation needs reconsideration, Eaton primarily questioned Connett's implication (which Connett denied implying) that there exist shadowy political and scientific "plots" (as Eaton put it) to enforce continuation of the practice. Eaton did endorse the call by the National Academy of Sciences for a lower maximum level and better research, and perhaps eventually a reversal in public policy; he even suggested the possibility of a mandamus lawsuit to force the EPA to act. (In the same vein, it makes sense for the city to do a truly substantive review of the current science, as recommended by the Environmental Board, and then on that basis make policy recommendations to City Council.)
Such a course would not be quick enough for this audience, whose members were not nearly as careful as Connett – who occasionally stopped just short of declaring that nearly all contemporary public health problems are rooted in fluoridation – to step back from more inflammatory arguments. Near the evening's end, Connett angrily rejected a suggestion that he was largely ignoring the strenuous political history of the U.S. fluoridation battle – and its roots in hysterical, anti-communist campaigns against any and all public health measures, the legacy of which we endure to this sorry electoral day. A few moments after Connett's dismissal, an audience member rose to declare that she had been blind to the sinister political implications of fluoridation until her eyes had been opened – by a John Birch Society video.
Alas, with enemies like these, fluoridation still doesn't need many friends.