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Don’t Drink the Water? Author Paul Connett Wants People to Take a Fresh (or First) Look at Fluoridation PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Health
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Thursday, 09 December 2010 05:16

If you’re approaching this article on water fluoridation with trepidation, Paul Connett knows how you feel.

“I didn’t want this issue,” said Connett, the co-author of the recently published book The Case Against Fluoride, in a phone interview last week.

“When my wife dumped a whole bunch of papers on my desk one afternoon in July 1996 and said, ‘Dear, would you read these papers?’” he recalled, “I said, ‘What is it? What’s it about?’ She says, ‘Fluoridation.’ I said, ‘Take it away. These people are crazy.’”

Connett already had a full-time job as a professor of chemistry at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York. And for a decade he had been a vocal opponent of waste incineration, a cause that sent him around the world presenting lectures.

“I didn’t want a third issue,” Connett said. “I certainly didn’t want this one, which was stigmatized ... as the province of a bunch of Flat Earth Society crazy people. And I’d succumbed to that same notion without doing any research.”

That night the Village of Canton was considering whether to continue fluoridation of the city’s drinking water. Connett said: “When I started to read the papers that she put there, my intention was as quickly as possible to find out where these crazy anti-fluoridationists had made some fundamental scientific mistakes and [determine] that there was nothing to worry about. ... It didn’t take me long to realize that there were some very serious problems with that practice” of fluoridation.

He said he told his wife: “This is going to be easy. When they hear what I read this afternoon, there’s no way they’re going to continue fluoridation.”

Connett was wrong. The crusade to stop fluoridation of Canton’s drinking water took more than seven years after that first night. That initial meeting was what Connett called his “first shock. All the dentists and several doctors were lined up to give their complete, utter, confident assurance that this was the best thing since sliced bread. It was perfectly safe.”

After the meeting, Connett said, he approached one doctor who had spoken in favor of fluoridation and asked him to read three papers; the doctor said he didn’t have time. Connett replied, “You shouldn’t let these people believe that you’ve read the literature – and it’s your professional judgment that this is perfectly okay – when that’s obviously not the case.”

Yet that doctor was hardly alone in speaking without having reviewed the science behind fluoridation. “That discussion on that night was a microcosm of what I was to see for the next 14 years – that local, state, and federal officials will go onto public platforms and make these absolutely, 100-percent-, 150-percent-confident statements that fluoridation is perfectly safe and perfectly effective,” Connett said. “And it’s almost to the point that they get some kind of commission every time they use the words ‘safe’ and ‘effective.’ It’s like a mantra – ‘safe and effective,’ ‘safe and effective.’ And they haven’t read the literature; they haven’t read it. And if they were to do so, they’d be utterly shocked at the way they’ve been corralled into supporting this nonsense.”

Download Embed Embed this video on your site Audio interview with Paul Connett (58 minutes).

So Connett became one of those Flat Earth Society crazies. And while it’s unreasonable to expect many people to have a similarly lightning-quick epiphany, he hopes that his book will get people to consider the issue of fluoridation – probably for the first time – beyond the endorsements of professional societies and public-health officials.

Basic Arguments in The Case Against Fluoride

'The Case Against Fluoride'Connett’s book, which was published in October, is meant as a corrective to six decades of fluoridation promotion. While the provocative subtitle is How Hazardous Waste Ended Up in Our Drinking Water & the Bad Science & Powerful Politics That Keep It There, the book’s primary concern is science.

The Case Against Fluoride has three basic arguments:

• Fluoridation is bad medicine because it’s a drug given to all without a doctor consultation, without informed consent, and without control over the amount of fluoride ingested. This is primarily an ethical argument based on the assertion that fluoride is a drug, in sense of the Merriam-Webster definition of “a substance intended for use in the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease.”

• There is little or no sound scientific evidence of fluoridation’s effectiveness in preventing tooth decay. Further, current evidence suggests that fluoride primarily works topically (in toothpaste, for example) rather than systemically (administered through drinking water). Connett and his co-authors review studies supporting the benefits of fluoridation and find them flawed.

• Fluoride administered through the public water supply might cause significant health problems. Connett and his co-authors argue that water fluoridation could have adverse health effects on the teeth (in the form of dental fluorosis), brain function (including lower IQ), the endocrine system (including the thyroid and pineal glands), bones, and kidneys. This section is premised on the medical-ethics principle of “First, do no harm.” The authors emphasize “the important difference between the possible health effects caused by fluoride and those caused by fluoridation. There is no doubt at all about the former; the debate rages over the latter.”

Underlying the last two core arguments is Connett’s assertion that “the whole history of the exercise [of fluoridation] and the whole promotion of the exercise has lacked scientific rigor from the word ‘go’” in 1950, when the U.S. Public Health Service first endorsed fluoridation.

The simplest way to state the book’s premise is that until better scientific studies can be done on the effects of fluoridation, the risks of health problems far outweigh the proven benefits, which The Case Against Fluoride says are negligible.

As the book’s conclusion states: “When exposing a whole population to a toxic substance – especially when the dose cannot be controlled – both decision makers and risk calculators have to be cautious, not cavalier. The decision to fluoridate does not provide an adequate margin of safety to protect everyone in the population, especially the most vulnerable.”

In our interview, Connett summarized: “I don’t think the notion that swallowing fluoride decreases tooth decay has been demonstrated rigorously from a scientific point of view. There have never been any double-blind, randomized clinical trials – the kind of thing the FDA [Food & Drug Administration] would insist upon if it actually did its job and investigated fluoride as a drug. At the moment, it’s classified as an unapproved drug by the FDA. Why on Earth they should tolerate an unapproved drug going to over 180 million Americans every day is beyond me. ...

“If this practice was being entertained today, there’s no way on God’s Earth that they could get away with it.”

Of course, fluoridation is already firmly established. According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), 72.4 percent of Americans – more than 195 million – were receiving fluoridated drinking water in 2008. In Iowa, the percentage was 91.8, even though fluoridation is not required by the state. In Illinois, where mandatory public-water-supply fluoridation became state law in 1967, 95.4 percent of residents received fluoridated drinking water. (Illinois is one of 12 states to require fluoridation.)

The cities of Rock Island, Moline, and East Moline fluoridate their water supplies, and Iowa American Water provides fluoridated water to the Iowa Quad Cities.

Fluoride is found naturally in many water supplies. According to Iowa American Water, fluoride occurs naturally at a concentration of 0.1 to 0.3 milligrams per liter in the Mississippi River. Water utilities add fluoride to the water to reach an “optimal” level of 1.0 milligrams per liter, with the typical target range between 0.7 and 1.2 milligrams per liter. The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set fluoride’s “maximum contaminant level” at 4.0 milligrams per liter.

Oddly, there’s no local control over fluoridation in the Quad Cities. In Illinois, that’s a function of state law. But in Iowa, the situation is bizarre: Municipalities claim they have no jurisdiction over fluoridation and apparently haven’t asked for fluoridated water in decades, yet Iowa American Water representatives said the company lets communities decide whether they want fluoridation. (See the sidebar “The Strange Case of Fluoridation in the Iowa Quad Cities.”)