Every Thursday, about 8:15am, Matthew talks with Ethan and Zac on 95bFM’s “Breakfast Show” about conspiracy theories.
Unbeknownst to you all (well, except those of you who also follow me on Twitter (http://twitter.com/HORansome”>@HORansome), I’ve been engaged in a war of words with a “prominent” proponent of conspiracy theories, Ben Vigden1. As such, today’s segment and the following discussion document might be seen as yet another salve by “bigoted” and “ignorant” me, because it’s the fluoride debate, and the presence of fluoride in water is, apparently, a big deal.
We last talked about fluoride back in March of 2012, which seems like a long time ago. I don’t quite recall the context; I think it was a suggested topic and I went with it. However, now fluoride is in the papers because the good people in Hamilton didn’t vote to get rid of it, but the council decided getting rid of it was a good idea.2 Why did the Hamilton City Council overwhelmingly decide to stop fortifying the local water supply with fluoride?
Special interest groups. Specifically the Fluoride Free Hamilton group (part of the Fluoride Action Network NZ), who are so emboldened by their success that they think this will turn the tide on fluoridation in Aotearoa me Te Wai Pounamu. They are worried about the amount of fluoride in our water supply and the medical effect it might have on children and the elderly.
So, either fluoride is introduced into water supplies to help prevent preventable dental decay or it has been put into our water supply for some other reason. Those “other reasons” range all the way from a simple capitalist plot to make money from waste (“It’s an industrial waste/by-product that needs to be disposed of!” to claims that it’s part of the New World Order plot to devastate humanity! (“It’s a mind control agent which calcifies the pineal gland! and makes us docile.”).
It’s not clear that FFH or FANNZ believe in a large scale, “make the population docile” conspiracy theory, although it is clear that they think there is some degree of collusion or cover-up by those who argue for fluoride fortification of our municipal water supplies.
So, does fortifying our water supplies with fluoride cause a reduction in dental decay across a population?
Well, yes, it does, but it’s a contributory cause rather than the cause of such a reduction.
Opponents of fluoridation (which aren’t necessarily people who think there is a conspiracy behind fluoride in water; they might just think it’s just not ethical to forcefully dose a population with fluoride) will point to countries which don’t fluoridate their water supply and yet still have the same rate of dental decay (or, to put it another way, the same lack of widespread dental decay) as countries which do. They will go “Aha! Fluoride isn’t the salve you claim it is!”
Most of the countries people will point at when it comes to healthy-smiles-without-addiitonal-fluoride are developed Western nations like, say, those we find in Europe (which, by-and-large, does not fluoridate, in part because a fair amount of their water is naturally fluoridated; we learnt about the benefits of fluoride precisely because there was a difference in smiles, say, between the UK and France). These developed Western nations also tend to have quite developed dental hygiene programmes (and may, or may not, encourage the use of fluoridated toothpaste).
Of course, even if what I have said is true, it might still be the case that fluoride is good for teeth but bad for the rest of the body. It might even be the case that it is an evil mind-control drug. What better vehicle for population control than a drug which also gives you a winning smile?
Both of these theories have been asserted by some opponents of fluoridation. FFH and FANNZ focus on the weaker (but more plausible) claim that fluoride toxicity is a very real factor in human ill health in Aotearoa me Te Wai Pounamu.
So, is fluoride poisonous? Yes, in large enough quantities, it is toxic. This is why we regulate the amount of fluoride in our water supplies–you would have to drink more than a lethal (read: salt-stripping) dose of water in a day to suffer the ill-effects of fluoride. In some areas of Europe the naturally occurring fluoride in spring water is watered down because it occurs in amounts which are considered harmful, but here we fortify the water to an amount which should harden teeth but shouldn’t harm humans.
It is also true that fluoride is what we call a “waste product”; most of the additional fluoride we have in water (most water contains a naturally-occurring amount of fluoride anyway, which is why we fortify, rather than introduce, our water with it) comes from the fertiliser industry, where it’s a by-product of the production of phosphate. Note that: “by-product.” We get fluoride and phosphate from the same process. As someone once pointed out, molasses is technically a waste-product in the production of sugar, but we call that a “by-product” rather than a “waste product”.
The question is, is fluoride dangerous at the levels we fortify water at? The answer to that seems to be no. “Seems”, because we’re relying here on population studies and appeals to experts (and FFH and FFANZ have their own experts who disagree, and who point towards studies which go against the consensus on water fluoridation).
The appeals to expertise here are tricky; science works via a consensus (where consensus means “Most of the qualified experts”) and the consensus (or scientific orthodoxy, if you will) has it that fluoride in water is not harmful at the levels we fortify at and said fluoride levels harden teeth and prevent dental decay. Yes, there are experts who disagree with water fluoridation. Some agree that fluoride helps prevent dental decay but disagree with what they consider to be “forced doping”. Others disagree that fluoride has any particular benefit. Some even consider fluoride to be dangerous. However, these experts are in the minority, and whilst certain proponents of alternative medicine will play the “Even Galileo was thought to be wrong!” card to justify placing their trust in the non-orthodix experts, this isn’t a good reason for the rest of us to ignore the consensus. It’s perfectly rational to prefer the testimony of the majority of experts, even if it eventually turns out that most of those experts are wrong.
Things are not so tricky when FFANZ and FFH point towards the actions of local body politicians and an increasing trend worldwide to stop fluoridating water. Politicians, as well we know, are not necessarily beholden to experts (indeed, often they ignore them for fun and profit). The fact that water fluoridation in the West is declining speaks to both social pressures by groups like FFH and FFANZ, an increasingly popular position that people should take responsibility for their own health care (thus why we don’t have mandatory folate in bread), increasing scepticism of mainstream health practices (thus lowered vaccination rates in the West) and increasing dental hygiene (thus less need to fortify municipal water supplies with fluoride). Just because water fluoridation is on the decline, that doesn’t mean it’s a dangerous practice that needs to be stomped out.
So, is fluoride a mind-control agent? (a claim, I would caution readers to remember, is not central to the FFH and FANNZ groups)
People like David Icke claim it is, and books have been written on fluoride as a cause of docility in, say, the American population, but there’s no actual good evidence for the claim that fluoride affects humans psychologically. That being said, the proponents of views like this will claim that this is precisely what the Establishment, and their pet scientists, want us to think; it is, after all, a grand conspiracy. People like me either are under the control of fluoride (given that I don’t try to avoid it) or know what fluoride does but are engaged in a disinformation campaign to stop people like you finding out its real purpose.
Now, it is true that there is plenty of quality scientific debate as to whether rich Western nations like our own need to put fluoride in the water and whether it’s ethical sound to do so even if it is beneficial. There are also debates, once again good debates, as to what the right concentration of fluoride is safest for human consumption, and I can see how the existence of these debates might make average epistemic agents like ourselves worried that maybe they should be concerned about fluoride. However, the fact that there is a debate doesn’t mean we should be concerned that there is a conspiracy, or that fluoride is a grave threat; for such a controversial claim to hold we need good evidence, which, as far as I can see, there really isn’t any.
Lest I be seen as totally partisan in this debate, here’s an interesting point and counterpoint: the Prime Minister’s Scientific Advisor on the benefits of fluoridation and a response by the Anti-Fluoridation Association of Mildura.