Is your drinking water trying to kill you?
Some people think so. And still more think: Why take a chance?
More than four out of five dentists agree that fluoride will reduce cavities. But non-dentists are kind of split.
Fluoride is a naturally occurring mineral used to fight tooth decay in children and also used to poison rats. This is the sort of juxtaposition that gets people upset.
The defenders of fluoridation, the practice of adding a small amount of fluoride to drinking water in order to fight tooth decay, are forced to respond to comments about these contradictory uses of fluoride by explaining that it's a matter of dosage. The amount of fluoride used to fight cavities is very small, you see, whereas the amount of fluoride in rat poison is very large.
This isn't exactly the most viscerally satisfying response. A concerned parent wants to hear "we are NOT adding rat poison to your children's drinking water," but instead they're being told "we're not adding MUCH rat poison to your children's drinking water."
On the other hand, Americans are the kings of ingesting toxic substances at sub-lethal levels. A shot of whiskey is fine, but drink three fifths in the course of an evening, and you'll have some trouble. Glue-sniffing was briefly a national fad, and it's still practiced, along with cocaine, heroin, whippets and ecstasy, all of which are highly toxic in large doses.
On the other other hand, alcohol is regulated to keep it away from minors, and all of the latter examples are entirely illegal. But you can find plenty of other examples, like nutmeg and Robotussin. Both are perfectly legal, one as a tasty seasoning and the other as a child's cough syrup in small doses. They're both middling hallucinogens in large doses and entirely toxic in still larger doses.
So you can see, the whole thing is kind of a sticky issue. But there are several elements of the debate which make fluoride more contentious than nutmeg. Chief among these is the fact that no one is pumping nutmeg into your drinking water.
For another thing, there's the way that fluoride was discovered. Around the dawn of the 20th Century, a dentist noticed that the people of Colorado Springs all had miserably ugly stains on their teeth. It was eventually discovered that this was caused by high levels of fluoride in their water supply, which was causing a mild disease due to overexposure. But at the same time, it was noted that the people of the area had much fewer cavities than the norm.
This led to the conclusion that smaller doses of fluoride could prevent tooth decay without causing the discoloring, but the fact is that fluoride was first discovered due to its negative effects.
When dentists learned about this new technique, there was a rush to get the "benefits" of fluoride out to the American public. With a very short span between the early 1940s and the late 1950s, fluoridation flooded into American communities, often with very little public debate.
By the time people started asking hard questions about fluoride, it was too late. Today, two thirds of the United States population drinks fluoridated water.
The push to get fluoride into drinking water was a nearly unprecedented success in government implementation during a time when major new technologies were transforming the world. At the very same time that fluoride was being rolled out to the public in dramatic fashion, the country was embracing the newfound miracle of atomic power, which was presented as a clean, safe alternative to fossil fuels.
Just as atomic power turned out to be a little messier than advertised, research began raising questions about fluoridation, which had been rapidly spread all over the country as the result of a full-court press by dental industry lobbyists and federal health agencies.
A major irritant to many people was the fact that the fluoridation of drinking water was, as often as not, presented as a statewide mandate which took the choice away from local (and suspicious minded) communities. People don't like that.
It also raises further question: Why fluoride? Why not have make it mandatory to add Vitamin C to drinking water? Or Vitamin B-12? Or calcium? Or zinc? Or echinacea? All of these things are theoretically good for people. In fact, most of them are arguably more important to good health than fighting cavities.
The dynamics of the fluoridation debate tend to run counter to the usual conspiracy/skeptic debate. With most conspiracy theories, it's the theorists who cite a lot of dicey statistics and launch a lot of ad hominem attacks on their opponents. In the fluoridation debate, it's the establishment, which frequently makes blanket statements to the effect that anyone worried about fluoridation is just a crackpot.
But in point of fact, there are actually rather a lot of valid concerns regarding fluoride in the diet. The major worries regarding fluoridation include:
But hey, what do the Swiss know, right?