Politics and religion are the classic topics to avoid if you want to enjoy a dinner party. In Australia, you can now add water fluoridation to that list.
It’s hard to understand what could lead to a respected senior public servant being heckled and bizarrely threatened at a public meeting after she gave a submission to a city council on the benefits of fluoride, but it helps if you realise that a lot is at stake for anti-fluoride activists. They have dedicated their whole world view to perhaps the most embarrassingly sketchy conspiracy theory of them all.
In a nutshell, anti-fluoride campaigners believe different versions of a few basic memes. The first is that fluoride in drinking water is harmful because it alters your brain in some way. The genesis of the “fluoride is a mind-altering chemical” trope goes back to post-war Europe and the breakup of German chemical company IG Farben. The company was at one point the fourth largest company in the world, and manufactured the dyes and industrial chemicals which were fundamental to German industrial might. Due to its close involvement with the Hitler regime and its atrocities (the company provided Zyklon B for gas chambers), it was broken up after the war, and many of its executives were put on trial for war crimes.
The tinfoil hat crowd makes the leap to believing that IG Farben had developed plans during the war to fluoridate occupied countries because they had found that fluoridation caused “slight damage to a specific part of the brain” (usually cited as the pineal gland), which would make the population either more docile or dumber, depending on your pet theory.
Even if it’s true that IG Farben had those plans, they wouldn’t have worked. The pineal gland has nothing to do with obedience, or defending the organism’s freedom from governmental interference. There’s no credible science proving that the tiny deposits of calcium and fluoride which accumulate in the pineal gland would affect its function at all. Here is the entire PubMed literature on the subject – the texts which refer to it are almost entirely obscure rat studies. Nothing there about behavioural changes, or lowering of IQ.
Others believe that water fluoridation was invented by chemical companies to allow them to simultaneously raise money for their lawsuits and dump their industrial by-products by concocting fake science to show that it helps tooth decay rates. While it is true that much of the fluoride added to water supplies is cheaply sourced from industry, that’s about as far as it goes. The massive flaw in this reasoning is that there is simply no evidence of harm coming to anyone from water fluoridation. Where is the damage? Where is the generation of disabled children that was promised by anti-fluoride activists? Why does nothing happen to towns, regions or even countries that fluoridate water supplies, apart from having fewer fillings?
Believing that fluoride is an industrial poison requires you to deny decades of evidence that fluoride at low concentrations has no ill effects. Oh, and you also have to believe that the “industry” is paying the “government” to keep quiet while industrial dumping of chemical waste into public water supplies is going on, and that municipal water engineers are either on the take, or sunk in fluoride-induced slavery to their unseen masters.
The other main line of argument is the “mass medication” belief. You can see how it would appeal to a certain type of citizen believing that the government shouldn’t force people to take “medication”, even for their own good. In the US, courts have repeatedly upheld the right of the state to fluoridate for the good of its people given the lack of harm and the overwhelming evidence of cost-effective benefit. Both sides have repeatedly made their best arguments before judges, and the anti-fluoride side has never won. Fluoride is not medication. If anything, it’s a supplement. Many anti-fluoride campaigners take all sorts of exotic supplements to “detoxify” from fluoride exposure, but seem unaware of the irony.
It’s true not every country fluoridates their water. Some jurisdictions have bought into the anti-fluoride hype, including in continental Europe. For some it is an economic decision – their decentralised water supplies mean the cost of fluoridation is very high. In Australia, we can and should make the effort, because the risks associated with children having to undergo general anaesthesia to remove teeth is orders of magnitude higher than the nonexistent risks of water fluoridation.
A summary of the economic and public health benefits of fluoridation can be found here. Anti-fluoride activists may keep on coming back like zombies, but their line of argument remains brain-dead.