Its critics have good points. Fair enough. But fluoridated water is still the way to go
Feature | Paul Dechene | June 2, 2011
“Fluoridation is the most monstrously conceived and dangerous communist plot we have ever had to face.” — General Jack D. Ripper, Dr. Strangelove
There’s a lot of strident pro-fluoridation writing that starts with that quote. It’s spoken by General Jack D. Ripper in Doctor Strangelove. Ripper’s a commie-hating, war-loving fascist who’s obsessed with his precious bodily fluids. And I have to admit, part of my reason for always supporting fluoridation stems from wanting to do the opposite in everything of Ripper and all the John Birchers, the McCarthyites, the conspiracy nuts, libertarians, survivalists, pious kooks and squares he was meant to satirize.
And it helps that science has always been on my side.
See, fluoridated drinking water stands alongside fluoridated toothpaste, flossing and widespread access to dentists and hygienists as the pillars of the 20th century’s dental health revolution. It’s a revolution that’s led to a dramatic plunge in the number of cavities in children and the near-eradication of serious dental illness.
And the thing is, of all the pillars, the most important is the fluoride. Everything else is necessary but pales in comparison to that element’s cavity-fighting powers.
And as for putting it in our drinking water, almost every major public health and dental health organization in the world supports it — including the Canadian Dental Association and Saskatchewan Health.
It makes you wonder why anyone would oppose fluoridated drinking water. It seems as absurd as opposing vaccination.
And yet, the anti-fluoridators are out there. And their numbers are growing.
In fact, a group of activists in Saskatoon have formed to try and shut down the city’s water fluoridation system.
Regina’s anti-fluoridators made sure our water was fluoride-free years ago.
“I moved to Saskatoon and I was buying bottled water and at one point I was like, why am I paying for the privilege of buying water that doesn’t have fluoride in it?” says Daeran Gall, an environmental activist who is the driving force behind Fluoride Action Saskatoon. “And so I started a petition.”
He says it was slow going at first. But once Calgary voted to shut down their fluoridation program,  people started to get activated around him. And while word on the street suggests reviewing fluoridation is not a priority for the current city council, Gall says he sees growing momentum in the city to end it.
He says that one of the key concerns motivating him and others is around the question of fluoride’s underreported toxicity.
“It has a very high reactive potential in chemistry. If you look where it is on the Periodic Table, fluorine combines with just about anything. And just about every fluoridated compound you can come up with is toxic,” he says.
He points to studies linking fluoride consumption to various bone diseases and cancers like osteosarcoma, to learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, arthritis, allergies and pineal and thyroid gland dysfunction.
All together, he says they add up to a legitimate health concern.
If that’s the case, then why are municipal governments and organizations like the CDA still so adamant that community water fluoridation should continue?
Gall says that there’s political pressure because the fluoride used in these programs is a toxic waste product needing somewhere to be dumped.
“The phosphate fertilizer industry, they produce about 65,000 tonnes of this waste per year which would be costly to dispose and treat,” he says. “So instead of having to disassociate these molecules into something stable and safe, they’re actually allowed to dump it into the river. Not directly — it goes through your taps first — but it would be totally illegal to dump it into the river.”
And it turns out that Gall is correct. Up to a point. The fluoride used by the city does come from other industries, but while anti-fluoridators call it “toxic waste” others could just as easily describe it as a “byproduct” (and the toxic waste argument a “red herring”).
As Troy Lafreniere, plant manager at Saskatoon water treatment plant points out, any chemical put in a water system goes through rigorous checks to ensure its purity, regardless of where it was produced.
Still, Gall says he can see an end to fluoridation in Saskatoon.
“If a dentist were to strap me into a chair and give me a fluoridation treatment against my will, I don’t think that would go over so well,” he says. “If I were to go to my neighbours and strap a fluoridation delivery system to their tap, it would probably be illegal. But yet we can do it to everybody in the city and the people who effectively make the decision is city council, and are they trained? They’re just going with the status quo. But the status quo is definitely shifting.”
After concluding this interview, thanks to Jack D. Ripper, I have to confess I was still pretty much prepared to dismiss Gall and the anti-fluoridation movement out of hand — this, despite the fact that Gall is about as unlike the Ripper caricature as you can imagine. He’s an environmentalist, typically a group I count as among “my people.”
But then I came across the book The Fluoride Wars and it softened my hard, flouridated exterior.
In it, authors R. Allen Freeze and Jay H. Lehr argue that while water fluoridation does more good than harm and is worth continuing, the concerns of the anti-fluoridation movement have been too often dismissed and the scientists who have found problems with fluoride have sometimes been unfairly ostracized.
“It’s interesting that you got that out of the book, because that’s exactly the message we were trying to put across,” says Freeze. “But in fact, when the book came out, it was roundly trounced by the anti-fluoridation people. They felt it wasn’t nearly supportive enough of the anti-fluoridation movement.”
“The whole issue is the health issue,” he says. “Fluoride is a bone seeker. It’s known that too much fluoride causes this horrible disease called Crippling Skeletal Fluorosis. And that was the main thing I learned very early in my investigations, that [CSF] is a very serious problem in some parts of the world where the natural fluoride of water is too high.
“But then the next thing you discover is there’s never been any Crippling Skeletal Fluorosis cases in North America, which is where most of the fluoridation has taken place.”
The kind of bone ailment he’s talking about only occurs where fluoride naturally appears in drinking water in concentrations over 10 parts per million.
In Canada, most water fluoridation programs keep the fluoride down to 0.7 PPM.
Freeze also points out that over the course of the anti-fluoridation movement, many different ailments have been blamed on fluoride, everything from Down Syndrome to heart disease. And yet, when studies show no connection exists, new maladies get proposed.
“There has never been any proven adverse health effect of a serious nature due to fluoridation — the kinds of things we might worry about, bone cancer and that sort of thing — but too much of it is certainly bad for you,” says Freeze. “And the amount we put in, one part per million is a common amount, and the amount that does you harm, let’s say 20 PPM on a regular basis, is not too far apart. Whereas, what I was used to as an engineer working with water contamination problems [were] situations where the amount was one [part], and what did you harm was 10,000 [parts].
“Fluoride is a bit different in that the safety margin is much smaller.”
For these reasons, Freeze argues that caution has to be exercised with fluoridation. The total dose to which people are exposed, he says, has to be watched carefully.
But, he says, it’s worth the effort.
“If you asked me what’s the strongest argument in favour of fluoridation, the answer is very clear: it works,” says Freeze. “It’s impossible to come to any other conclusion than that it ended the plague of dental caries [cavities] in children. Therefore, you could argue it’s one of the most successful health measures ever done.”
Ultimately, when deciding whether to fluoridate or not to fluoridate, the question is one of balance. We know that water fluoridation works. And what’s more, we know that it is most effective with marginalized groups: low-income families, children, the elderly and infirm.
But the anti-fluoridators and Freeze are both right: there are risks involved, and more research needs to be done.
Still, Regina doesn’t fluoridate its drinking water.
You have to wonder if maybe, over concerns of unproven (and possibly slight) negative health effects and fears of somehow infringing upon personal autonomy, we haven’t left many in our community unnecessarily vulnerable.
This story was originally published June 2, 2011. We are republishing it because City Council is reconsidering fluoridating Regina’s water supply, which you can read about here.
1. Who would’ve guessed that less than 10 years after Paul wrote this story a significant proportion of Canadians would be suspicious of vaccination — some of them outright opposed — during a deadly global pandemic?
2. According to a story in the May 2021 Maclean’s (“After a decade of cavities, will Calgary put fluoride back in its water supply?”), within two years of removing fluoride from its water in 2011, cavities in children’s teeth jumped 65 per cent from 2005 numbers in Calgary. By contrast, cavities increased only 14 per cent in Edmonton, which continues to fluoridate its
The Terrible, Gross Things You’re Drinking
Anti-fluoride activists want the chemical out of our water. Why single out fluoride? There are lots of awful things you ingest trace amounts of every day. /Paul Dechene
ARSENIC As every young poisoner knows, arsenic was a favourite murder weapon in the Middle Ages because death by arsenic looked very much like death by cholera. Nowadays in Regina, you’ll find only 0.0003 mg/L of it in your drinking water. It’s too little to kill you but it is 300 times the concentration of a 6C homeopathic remedy. So maybe to a homeopath that looks like whopping loads of arsenic. But only to a homeopath.
URANIUM Hope the arsenic doesn’t have you worried because there’s about an equal amount of uranium in your drinking water. Still, waaay below what is considered dangerous.
CHLORINE Along with its chemical pals fluorine and iodine, chlorine belongs to the halogen club of highly reactive, highly toxic elements — the badasses of the periodic table. As Saskatoon’s water treatment plant manager puts it: “I wouldn’t want to eat any of this stuff by the spoonful.” Still, we like to keep 0.9 to 1.1 mg/L of it floating in our water at all times because it keeps several nasty plagues at bay.
SULPHATES According to Health Canada, sulphates can have “a cathartic effect on humans, resulting in purgation of the alimentary canal.” Translation: they make you poop. That said, the 143 mg/L in our water is probably too low a dose to account for our reputation for being steady, reliable folk.
CRUSTACEANS According to the Buffalo Pound 2010 annual report, our tap water contains fewer than two crustaceans per litre. Which means maybe you just drank no crustaceans at all! But it’s just as likely you drank one (shudder).
FLAGELLATES, NEMATODES, ROTIFERS, DEAD BEAVERS, USED CONDOMS Once treated, there are undetectable levels of all these in your drinking water. But before treatment, all sorts of disgusting crap was soaking in it. And you’re still worried about fluoride?
The Colorado Brown Stain
The history of fluoridation begins in 1909 with studies into a malady that afflicted people in the Pikes Peak region of Colorado: a mottling and pitting of the teeth called “Colorado Brown Stain” that we now know as dental fluorosis. Research revealed that despite the severe discolouration of the teeth, children suffering from it had fewer cavities than children living elsewhere.
In 1931, scientists discovered the cause of the Brown Stain was the high concentrations of fluoride in the region’s water. Through the 1930s and ’40s it was determined a concentration of 1 mg/L of fluoride in drinking water would provide the cavity fighting benefits while causing only mild fluorosis in small numbers of people. By the early ’50s, community water fluoridation programs were increasingly the norm across North America.
Concurrent to this, fluoride was introduced into toothpaste in 1914 but didn’t receive widespread acceptance until the 1950s.
What Does Fluoridation Cost?
One of the main advantages of community water fluoridation is that there are few public health initiatives that offer so much bang for the municipal buck.
“The chemical itself is quite inexpensive,” says Troy Lafreniere, plant manager at Saskatoon water treatment plant. “It costs us only around $40,000 a year. But its equipment maintenance costs are equal to that or more. We’re talking in the neighbourhood of $60,000 a year. That includes replacement of equipment in 20 years or so and that’s what we’re doing this year, we’re replacing that equipment. It’s over 20 years old now. I think we had a ballpark figure of $120,000 annual costs.” /Paul Dechene