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This article appeared in the "Editor's File" in
The Textbook Letter, January-February 1998.

Don't Drink the Water

William J. Bennetta

Have you ever heard of a thing called fluoridation? -- fluoridation
of water? . . .  Do you realize that fluoridation is the most
monstrously conceived and dangerous Communist plot we have
ever had to face? . . .  Do you realize that in addition to fluoridating
water -- why, there are studies under way to fluoridate salt, flour,
fruit juices, soup, sugar, milk, ice cream? Ice cream, Mandrake! --
children's ice cream! Do you know when fluoridation first began?
. . . Nineteen hundred and forty-six. Nineteen forty-six, Mandrake.
How does
that coincide with your post-war Commie conspiracy, huh?
It's incredibly obvious, isn't it? A foreign substance is introduced
into our precious bodily fluids without the knowledge of the
individual -- certainly without any choice. That's the way your
hard-core Commie works.
            Gen. Jack Ripper, in Stanley Kubrick's film Dr. Strangelove,
            imparting political enlightenment to Capt. Lionel Mandrake

Let us consider the anti-fluoridation cranks. They believe that the fluoridation of drinking water is a manifestation of an evil conspiracy, though they disagree about the identities and goals of the conspirators. Some of them say that the conspirators are Communists who plan to topple our republic after fluoride ions have made us meek and helpless. Others insist that fluoridation is promoted by "industry," as a mechanism for getting rid of wastes that contain fluorine compounds. Take your pick.

In either case, the conspiracy must be exposed -- and for that purpose, the cranks have assembled a great array of pseudoscientific and pseudohistorical horror stories. Do you know that the Nazis administered a nameless fluoride to prisoners in concentration camps, to "render the prisoners docile and inhibit the questioning of authority"? Do you know that the Soviet Union imported fluorides from the United States, during the 1940s, and used the fluorides to "maintain subservience" among inmates of the GULAG prisons? Do you know that aluminum companies are big players in the fluoridation conspiracy, because they must dispose of countless tons of waste fluorides generated during the smelting of bauxite? Do you know that the fluoride ion induces tumors, stillbirths, genetic damage, dermatitis, nervous disorders and endocrine afflictions (among many other things), and that these effects are independent of the fluoride's concentration?

It is easy to laugh at such stories, but we have to view them seriously, for a moment, because some of them appear in Holt, Rinehart and Winston's Modern Chemistry, a high-school textbook that is the subject of two reviews in this issue of TTL. Both of our reviewers infer (correctly, I think) that Holt is pandering to the anti-fluoridation zealots by disseminating and dignifying, though not actually endorsing, some of their claims.

Holt's writers use rhetorical moves that are rather cute. They tell that the fluoridation of water supplies has been supported by nearly every medical and dental association in the United States, but then they say: "In the past decade, however, the trend slowed as opposition to fluoridation grew." They don't tell who has mounted the "opposition" or why, but they hasten to suggest that the opponents are acting on new, vital information: We "now" know, the writers say, "that high concentrations of fluoride are dangerous to human health."

Yes, we now know this -- and Paracelsus knew it in the 1500s, when he set forth the principle that every substance is poisonous; the dose alone determines whether the substance will cause harm in a given situation. As for fluoride in particular: Cases of fluoride poisoning have been recorded since the mid-1800s. Holt's writers imply that there is something new in the recognition that "high concentrations of fluoride are dangerous to human health," but their implication is false.

The writers' next stunt is even cuter:

One anti-fluoridation organization claims that fluorides can cause or contribute to diabetes, heart disease, stroke, cancer, miscarriages, stillbirths, and disabling childhood diseases. Although little scientific evidence exists for such claims, we do know that the intake of too much fluoride can cause fluorosis, in which teeth become mottled with brown spots. . . .

How nice! Some baseless claims supplied by a nameless "anti-fluoridation organization"; then an acknowledgment that there is "little evidence" to support the claims; and then an attempt to dignify the claims anyway, by tying them to an utterly unrelated matter: dental fluorosis.

Dental fluorosis is a well documented, harmless condition that has borne various vernacular names, including "Colorado brown stain" and "Texas teeth." Those names commemorated the discolored but unusually healthy teeth seen in persons who drank water that contained unusually high, natural concentrations of fluoride ion. The artificial fluoridation of water does not cause discoloration, because the fluoride concentration is limited to 1 ppm or so -- too low to induce fluorosis.

Now, if people regularly drink water whose fluoride concentration is not 1 ppm but 10 ppm (a concentration that actually has been found in some natural waters), the fluoride can cause skeletal deformities and other gross disorders. This is irrelevant to any question about 1-ppm fluoridation, but the cranks like to claim or imply that a concentration of 1 ppm will produce the same effects that are associated with concentrations of 10 ppm or more. Indeed, a lot of anti-fluoridation propaganda embodies the notion that concentration doesn't matter. It's no wonder that the cranks haven't been able to support their claims with evidence!

Teachers who want to learn more about these folks can find some of their stuff on the Web. I especially like "A Chronology of Fluoridation," at http://www.trufax.org/fluoride/flchrono.html, which promotes most of the crankish claims that I cited earlier. The "Chronology" is doubly rich because its creator appears to believe in both the Communist conspiracy and the "industry" conspiracy, though he begins by quoting a devotee of the latter.


William J. Bennetta is a professional editor, a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, the president of The Textbook League, and the editor of The Textbook Letter. He writes often about the propagation of quackery, false "science" and false "history" in schoolbooks.

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