City Council Dives into Water Fluoridation: Updated

City Council Dives into Water Fluoridation: Updated

Council seeks to find the benefit and harms to our precious bodily fluids

The City Council last week passed a policy order requesting the City Manager look into the "the risks and benefits of the effects of continuing to fluoridate the city's water supply." With that action, Cambridge took a step into the conspiracy theories that have, for more than half a century, lived in the fever swamps of American politics.

Update: The discussion of community water fluoridation in Cambridge will be held from 7:30 PM - 9:00 PM Wednesday, February 4, 2015 in the Citywide Senior Cente, 806 Massachusetts Ave.

The panel discussion on fluoridation of the City’s drinking water supply, with an opportunity for public comments and questions, will include:

  • Deborah Klein Walker, Cambridge Board of Health Chair and former Asst. Commissioner Massachusetts Department of Public Health;
  • Dr. Myron Allukian Jr., Harvard professor of public and President Mass. Coalition for Oral Health;
  • Dr. David Brumley, chair of the Duxbury Board of Health and a practicing family practitioner; and
  • Sam Lipson, Director of Environmental Health at the Cambridge Public Health Department.
  • The order was not originally neutral. As submitted by Councilor Nadeem Mazen, the order asked that the City report on the "possible harms" of water fluoridation. Indeed, the summary of the order still reads that way. In a telephone interview, Mazen explained the "hasty drafting" of the order left out the nuances he felt it deserved. His goal, he said, was to start a discussion about the inequities in child dental health care. If fluoride were to be removed from Cambridge's water, the harms would fall largely on the economically disadvantaged, those who can't afford a robust program of dental health, he added. Mazen said the he wasn't against water fluoridation, except in the sense he felt that we should add as few chemicals to natural water as was possible.

    A Brief History of Fluoridation

    The first proposal to add fluoride to water in order to reduce tooth decay was in 1870s Germany. Community water fluoridation became an official policy of the US Public Health Service in 1951. As of 2006, approximately 70% of Americans received fluoride through their water supply. Through the 1940s and 1950s, right wing anti-communists opposed fluoridation as a communist plot, part of a larger effort that included vaccinations and mental health services, to impose a communist regime on the United States. The source of this belief stems from testimony to the House UnAmerican Activities Committee from a former Communist, Kenneth Goff, who claimed not only that fluoride was a plan for mind control, but that Hitler was secretly a Jewish communist agent. By 1964, the anti-fluoride movement was a national joke. Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove" built its plot about a renegade general launching a war against the Soviet Union to stop the communist plot to pollute with fluoride "our precious bodily fluids."

    Today, the John Birch Society, the radical right wing anti-communist group, takes pains to assert that it was never against fluoride. The historical record differs.

    Fluoride in Cambridge

    The first proposal to fluoridate Cambridge water was a 1953 referendum that lost by 6000 votes. Prior to that referendum, the Massachusetts Woman's Political Club denounced fluoridation as a "plot by subversives to take over the American government." In 1959, fluoride advocates won by 42 votes and fluoridation of the water began in August 1960. Another referendum was held in 1963 and, despite the assertion of chairwoman of the Cambridge Citizens' Committee for Dental Health that there wasn't "a single, intelligent, active person in Cambridge who is against fluoridation" and that the only opponents were "crackpots", fluoridation lost by approximately 1500 votes. That campaign generated complaints of dirty campaigning, including a postcard of a dead rat sent to all Cambridge voters. Fluoride wouldn't return to Cambridge water until 1974.

    The Modern Anti-Fluoride Movement

    For the most part, modern anti-fluoride movement seems reasonable on its face. As the Portland (OR) Mercury noted last year there are "a hailstorm of [...] arguments that look, sound, and seem rational. Except that they aren't." Shortly after that article, Portland, via referendum, rejected fluoride for the fourth time.

    Examining anti-fluoride arguments one finds on the web is liking descending down the rabbit hole. There are so many web sites and commentaries that it's easy to just shrug one's shoulders, give up trying to assess the actual truth, and decide that, out of an abundance of caution, fluoride shouldn't be added to water. That is, of course, the goal of all these arguments. But if you take pains to track certain arguments, they tend, like a mirage, to disappear.

    A search for "Harvard Study Confirms Fluoride Reduces Children's IQ", a study widely touted by anti-fluoride activists, gets 115,000 results, including from reputable news sources. Except, that's not what the study authors say their study concludes. In 2012, Harvard School of Public Health researchers performed a meta-analysis of 27 fluoride studies. They looked at no research subjects nor did they examine the data of individuals. Instead, they took the aggregate results of those 27 studies and, using sophisticated statistical techniques, combined them in order to gain more statistically robust results. To begin with, these are correlational studies from which one cannot, no matter how strong the results, assert cause and effect. And most of the studies come from Chinese communities which are suffering from poisonous levels of fluoride in their water. As the study authors say in a supplemental note issued after their analysis made misleading headlines "[t]hese results do not allow us to make any judgment regarding possible levels of risk at levels of exposure typical for water fluoridation in the U.S." The authors recommend continued research.

    The communist threat having faded into history, there remains another purported fluoride plot. Fluoridation, it is said, is an industrialists' plot to dispose of industrial waste via the water supply. The modern version of this theory reached prominence when Amy Goodman, on her program Democracy Now, interviewed Christopher Bryson, author of "The Fluoride Deception." This was not Goodman's finest hour. Goodman seemed dumbstruck that what Bryson described as "rat poison" would be put in drinking water, later asking "Do they have to dump it on a regular basis in the reservoirs?". Goodman would likely be perturbed that something used as poison gas and outlawed under international law is routinely added to our water supply. But, without chlorine, naturally occurring water-born bacteria would ravage our digestive tracts.

    The Cambridge Position on Fluoride

    Cambridge has a municipal water system, operating its own water treatment plant located at Fresh Pond. As a professional organization in a progressive city, the Cambridge Water Department (CWD) had a position on fluoride before Councilor Mazen introduced his policy order. In its statement, CWD acknowledges the Center For Disease Control's classification of fluoridation as one of the 10 great public health advances for the United States in the 20th century and lists the other public health organizations that continue to back water fluoridation. It concludes

    Cambridge Water Department is aware that a number of people across the country are raising questions about fluoride in drinking water. Cambridge Water Department intends to keep an open-minded view on any matters of technical competency, and we will pay close attention to competing viewpoints. But it is doubtful that Cambridge Water Department’s position will change so long as the CDC, MDPH, and others continue to support fluoridation and its benefits.

    There are, of course, other approaches. One could adopt what Dr. Strangelove's General Jack Ripper said was the Russian way to avoid fluoride: drink vodka. These days, it would have to be vodka distilled from locally grown, organic, non-GMO potatoes, fermented with artisanal yeast. But, be warned. Alcohol, in sufficient quantities, is toxic.

    здоровье, Това́рищ.
    To your health, Comrade.

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