WHICH routinely ingested substance is alleged to increase risk of cancer, thyroid disease, sickle-cell anaemia, depression, infertility, birth defects, sudden infant death syndrome, low IQ, Alzheimer’s, headache, chronic fatigue, violent behaviour, musculoskeletal damage, gastrointestinal problems, hair loss, chronic dermatitis and hives?

The answer, of course, is fluoride, which has been the target of health scare campaigns pretty much since it was first added to Australian drinking water to improve dental health back in the 1950s.

As if making you bald and stupid isn’t enough, anti-fluoride campaigners also claim that the substance either doesn’t prevent tooth decay or actually increases it.

One website even makes the startling assertion that Adolf Hitler fluoridated the German water supply in the 1930s to turn the populace into easily brainwashed zombies, so that he could “numb society and take over”.

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that health professionals are often targets of online conspiracy theories, accused of being in the pockets of major corporations that stand to profit from fluoridation programs.

Residents of regional Queensland may not have to worry about their IQs being affected, as the water supply in many areas of that state is no longer fluoridated.

The regional cities of Mackay and Gladstone recently voted to join other centres in abandoning fluoridation, a decision that has caused consternation in dental circles.

“Lunacy”, was how a spokesman for the Australian Dental Association described the move, saying that people’s health was being put at risk by “these lunatic, conspiracy-theory fringe groups”.

Among regional Queensland cities, Townsville is a notable exception in having fluoridated its water since the 1960s.

That’s given the locals something to smile about. According to Queensland Health, the average number of cavities in the permanent teeth of Townsville children aged 12–14 years is just over half of that in children from regions of northern Queensland without a history of fluoridation (0.7 v 1.3).

The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) recently completed a comprehensive review of the evidence on the safety and efficacy of fluoridation.

The update was conducted partly in response to a 2015 Cochrane review that was widely reported as casting doubt on the health benefits of the practice.

A Newsweek article, for example, said that assumptions about the evidence base for fluoridation now seemed “dramatically misguided”.

Really? In fact, the Cochrane reviewers found that water fluoridation was “effective at reducing levels of tooth decay among children”.

However, no studies of the effects of fluoridation for preventing caries in adults met the review’s inclusion criteria, thus they did not find evidence of benefit in adults.

Their review has been critiqued for its methodology and inclusion criteria (in this Nature article, for example).

But, whether you accept those criticisms or not, the conclusion that fluoridation works in children and might or might not work in adults doesn’t exactly seem like a dramatic overturn of the conventional wisdom.

The NHMRC certainly didn’t think so, reporting on the long history of research that shows water fluoridation helps to reduce tooth decay in children and adults.

Most importantly, the NHMRC review of the evidence found that community water fluoridation within the current Australian range does not cause harm.

Sadly, though, that message probably won’t hold much sway with the fearmongers.

Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and health writer, journalist and publisher.

 

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9 thoughts on “Fluoride fearmongering ignores the evidence

  1. Dan Germouse says:

    The conclusions of the 2015 Cochrane review, which were changed from those of an earlier version of the report, are dishonest and do not match the data. I have read the full review, and the authors could not find even a single study of the supposed benefit to either children or adults which was not of poor quality and high risk of bias. The evidence comes nowhere near establishing causation, which is obvious to everyone who is scientifically literate who takes the time to actually look at the evidence, not just parrot conclusions.

  2. Jim says:

    Fluoridation may or may not have an overall public health benefit. I’m not an expert. I suspect few of us are, and that includes the author of this article.

    However, the real question is whether governments have a right to fluoridate the water supply without the consent of the public.

    That’s not a public health question. That’s a question of basic liberty.

  3. Randy Johnson says:

    Dan Germouse – You claim “I have read the full [Cochrane] review.” While that might be true, you clearly did not understand anything about the study, and you clearly overlooked a key fact of the review which stated, “Our review found that water fluoridation is effective at reducing levels of tooth decay among children. The introduction of water fluoridation resulted in children having 35% fewer decayed, missing and filled baby teeth and 26% fewer decayed, missing and filled permanent teeth. We also found that fluoridation led to a 15% increase in children with no decay in their baby teeth and a 14% increase in children with no decay in their permanent teeth.”

    You do not understand the primary limitation of the study were an extremely strict exclusion criteria (which were inappropriate for studies of public health measures) which eliminated nearly all relevant research from evaluation.

  4. Randy Johnson says:

    Jim – How can you possible conclude, “That’s not a public health question.”?

    Fluoridation has been clearly shown to reduce dental decay (and related health problems) in populations. Fluoridation is a water treatment process, like disinfection (which kills pathogens – and creates disinfection byproducts), pH adjustment and corrosion control (which reduces lead and other compounds from dissolving into water from pipes), and coagulation/flocculation which (removes contaminants). All of these water treatment methods involve adding various chemicals to the water, all improve and protect the health of citizens, and all have benefits that are far greater than any risks.

    You admit you are not an expert in understanding fluoridation, yet you choose to ignore the overwhelming majority of experts who (for over 70 years) have provided evidence that fluoridation is a safe and effective process for reducing dental decay. Why do you choose to believe a minority of individuals who do not have legitimate evidence to support their opinions that fluoridation is not safe and effective.

    Are you seriously suggesting that you would prefer to see people suffer from possibly preventable dental decay (and related health problems) because you do not wish to ingest fluoride ions?

    If you have problems with any compounds in drinking water, residual contaminants and disinfectants, disinfectant byproducts, or fluoride ions, no one is forcing you to ingest them. You have complete freedom to find a different source of water or take measures to remove those compounds. It is absurd to insist that a specific water treatment method

    “We should ask not are we entitled to impose fluoridation on unwilling people, but are the unwilling people entitled to impose the risks, damage & costs of the failure to fluoridate on the community at large? When we compare the freedoms at stake, the most crucial is surely the one which involves liberation from pain and disease.” – Dr. John Harris of the Department of Ethics and Social Policy at the University of Manchester, UK

  5. Jim says:

    Randy, perhaps try reading my post again. It’s very short and easy to read.

    The question of whether fluoridation has a net positive impact on public health is a question of public health.

    The question of whether governments should add fluoride to the water supply without the consent of the public is a question of liberty.

    Two very different questions. It’s not that complicated. But then again, public health zealots have always had a problem understanding this revolutionary concept that citizens of a free society could possibly make their own choices.

  6. Randy Johnson says:

    Jim – I did read your post – What is this so-called-liberty that enables the personal opinions of someone to trump the public welfare? When the evidence of 70 years clearly demonstrated that fluoridation benefits dental health in a community and has no health risks, what gives you the right to say – I don’t like fluoridation, so stop it?

    If I disliked ingesting residual disinfectants and the created disinfection byproducts would I have the “liberty” to demand that disinfection be stopped?

  7. joyce martin says:

    No matter what it does or doesn’t do, mass medication is against the people’s choice.

    Why not add laxatives and anti depressants too?

    If a person wants fluoride for their teeth, buy toothpaste with fluoride. Our joints and organs don’t need fluoride.

  8. Sue Ieraci says:

    The person posting as “Dangermouse” (geddit?) is well-known for posting anti-fluoridation misinformation widely on social media.

    This person negects some real basics:
    – Fluoride is naturally occurring in wateer supplies all over the world. true toxicity occurs where the ground water is naturally very high in fluoride. Regulated town water fluoridation (ie adding fluoride to a water supply that is naturally low in fluoride) gives the protection without the risk.
    -There has never been fluoride toxicity caused by drinking regulated town water anywhere in the world, ever.
    – Population health measures benefit the most vulnerable, such as children who have not been taught good dental hygiene, without harming anyone.

    It’s difficult to know this person’s motivation, but he or she is persistent, and misinformed.

  9. Sue Ieraci says:

    Joyce and Jim – in a civil society, population health measures are put in place for the benefit of all. As Randy Johnson says, town water is treated in multiple ways to protect public health. Seat belt use is also mandated – it is not optional by popular choice.

    The comment about laxatives and antidepressants is fatuous.

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