Fluoridation Ban – Direct Meh, Indirect Disaster

My last post, predicting that it is unlikely the Coalition will retain their majority at the next election made quite most readers happy, even if they didn’t agree with me. This one probably won’t. Nevertheless, some things need to be said.

The direct effects of Byron Bay Council’s decision to oppose fluoridating their water supply are small. You don’t need to drink fluoridated water all the time to get most of the benefits – indeed there is some evidence that we could get all the current benefits with a somewhat lower rate of fluoridation. Since the water supply of many surrounding areas is fluoridated (although often only recently so) children growing up in Byron Bay will usually spend a fair bit of their time drinking fluoridated water. Some of the produce they consume will have been grown in fluoridated water as well. Between these they will get a dose that will make up a substantial portion of the fluoride they need for maximum tooth protection. If you get (picking figures out of the air) 70% of the protection from 30% of the fluoride consumption, children growing up in Byron Bay in future will go a fair way towards getting the protection they need – certainly better than the previous generation who didn’t have fluoridated Brisbane water.

Secondly, it is true that the need for fluoridation has decreased. Dental treatment is better now than in the days when fluoridation was introduced, and less painful. Consequently, even those whose teeth do are naturally pretty bad will often be able to get them fixed, and may be less inclined to avoid the dentist. The sight of people missing half their teeth will become increasingly rare, fluoridation or no fluoridation.

So why do I think the decision is a disaster? Because it is a surrender to the forces of anti-science by those who most need to stand in its defense.

Some people oppose fluoridation because they are against the compulsory aspect of it. Their argument is that people should have the right to choose whether they drink fluoridated water or not. I disagree with this for two reasons:

*They can always buy filters if they want (although I have been told the filters that claim to remove fluoride don’t work).

*The fluoride is there for children. Just as we do not respect the “right” of parents to punch out a child’s tooth because it offends them we should not support a “right” to ensure their children grow up with worse teeth than required.

Nevertheless, I think this is an issue on which reasonable people can disagree.

What is indefensible is the use of blatantly false information to oppose fluoridation on supposedly scientific grounds, and it appears that this is the basis on which the Byron Bay Council reached its decision.

Make no mistake, the statements you will find on any anti-fluoridation website have no more scientific credibility than one on a climate change denial site. Not all of them will be outright lies, although many will be, but they will be cherry picked and distorted to suggest things that are simply untrue. A particularly common example is the claim that only a few countries fluoridate their water supplies. While technically true this is either explicitly or implicitly suggests that everywhere else has decided that fluoridation is a bad idea.

In fact the reasons water is not fluoridated elsewhere varies, and when taken into account throw a very different light on the decision. Many parts of the world have naturally fluoridated water (as indeed do small areas of Australia). With fluoride levels at or above the World Health Organisation recommended levels of course these places don’t add more. In other places the decision has been made to put fluoride in salt or milk. One can argue about the merits of these particular approaches compared to water, but clearly these are not the acts of governments that accept the claims that fluoride is dangerous at the levels added to water supplies.

The situation is equivalent to the climate change denialist or inactivist who says that only a small number of nations have implemented a carbon tax. While sometimes true (although they often reduce the number below what it is) the real question is how many nations have put a price on carbon emissions. This includes most of the developed world. The details of which exact form the price takes are much less important.

The aspect of these sites that I find most sickening is that most of the claims on them are recycled from the 1950s when they were put out by groups like the John Birch Society, the forerunners of people who not only deny human input to climate change but also allege Obama’s birth certificate was forged because he was born in Kenya (the notice of his birth in the classified sections of two Hawaiian newspapers have been cunningly placed by parents who wanted him to grow up to be president, presumably). These people were opposed to fluoridation in part because they objected to government doing anything to help the populace at large, but also for an even more hideous reason. Since poor teeth are usually a sign of poverty, blacks had worse teeth than whites. Some people were very keen to see to it that this gap did not close. The site of people from my side of politics recycling claims created to maintain a racial divide makes me nauseous, even though I realise none of them are aware of the source of these claims.

The scientific evidence on fluoridation is clear. No significant negative health effects from fluoridating water supplies to the level that is done in Australia. It is always possible that some problem could emerge, which is why we keep doing new research, but there is no possibility that problems larger than the benefits that accrue from fluoridation will be found. We know this because the areas of Australia that lack fluoridated water, or were fluoridated too recently to have had an effect, score worse on almost all measures of health (including life expectancy) than those that have been fluoridated. When other factors are controlled for these differences decrease, but do not disappear entirely, simply because good teeth are good for your health.

The problem then is this: If you reject overwhelming scientific evidence simply because it does not suit you on fluoride, what right do you have to demand others do so on climate?

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About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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3 Responses to Fluoridation Ban – Direct Meh, Indirect Disaster

  1. Drew says:

    Thanks Stephen – I’ve always been a little skeptical about fluoride-deniers, but never went into the details, and hence didn’t rock any boats in polite conversation. You’ve emboldened me – thanks. It’s a fact though that among greens there is a tendency to believe natural is best, and I’m sure the anti-fluoride crowd are acting on that instinct. As more and more evidence comes to light about the damage done to our environment and human health by economically-motivated and science-facilitated chemical interventions, it’s an instinct that gets regular vindication, while public confidence in science gets further eroded, to the point where the worst of deniers can hold sway.

    But I think your more reasoned and researched position vindicates what I am sure we both believe – that the best antidote to anti-science is properly publicly funded and fully independent science institutions. Just like those our PM is busy disbanding. Maybe your fluoride example should be brought to his attention to demonstrate the importance of those institutions.

  2. Pingback: Dream and Revelation | Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats

  3. Yes, I think a lot of the opposition to fluoride these days comes from that “natural is best” assumption. Often that is true, but the problem is what is natural? As noted, in large parts of the world the water supply is naturally fluoridated. Humans evolved in the African Rift Valley where most of the streams our ancestors drank from had fluoride levels above the World Health Organisation’s recommendations, and far above anything we put in our water here.

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