Conspiracy theorists target fluoride in water — and convince some towns to ban it

It has been hailed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as one of the top public health achievements of the 20th century. Numerous studies have proven its safety and efficacy. But fluoride — the naturally occurring compound that prevents cavities and tooth decay — is still sparking heated debates, seven decades after it was first added to America's water supply.

"Anti-fluoridationists" — a small but vocal minority — are disputing long-established science to say that fluoride added to tap water lowers IQ and causes everything from acne to anemia to Alzheimer's.

These anti-fluoride believers are active online but also at the polls: In the past five years, 74 cities have voted to remove fluoride from their drinking water, according to the American Dental Association. This year, there have been 13 votes around the country on fluoridation, and at least three more cities have fluoride referendums on the ballot in November: proposed bans in Brooksville, Florida, and Houston, Missouri, and a vote on bringing fluoridated water back in Springfield, Ohio.

The frets over fluoride are reminiscent of the unfounded fear that vaccines cause autism: disproved by science, yet steadfast nonetheless. The persistence of fluoride conspiracy theories — which emerged in the 1950s with claims that fluoridation was a communist plot to dumb down Americans — is alarming public health officials, including the American Dental Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics, who say fluoride is a safe, inexpensive way to boost children's oral health.

Dr. Johnny Johnson, a retired pediatric dentist who is president of the nonprofit American Fluoridation Society, calls the anti-fluoride efforts "cult-like."

"You cannot tailor public health to the whims of a small group of people," he said. "If you are doing that, you are harming a large group of people."

The anti-fluoridationists, though, say that it's the fluoride supporters who are harming the public's health. Some argue that the government uses fluoride as a form of mind control; others believe it's designed to boost the sugar lobby by enabling people to eat more sweets without getting cavities; and still others believe that health officials are afraid to reverse course on fluoride after promoting it for decades.

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LONDON - JULY 9: A glass is filled with water from the tap July 9, 2003 in London, England. Plans to force water companies to add fluoride to their supplies are being considered in the House of Lords. Opponents to the scheme describe the idea as 'mass poisoning.' Meanwhile, a watchdog report say that the quality of water in England and Wales are at an all time high and has never been so good. Nearly all the water tested last year met national and European Union standards. (Photo by Ian Waldie/Getty Images)
LONDON - JULY 9: A glass is filled with water from the tap July 9, 2003 in London, England. Plans to force water companies to add fluoride to their supplies are being considered in the House of Lords. Opponents to the scheme describe the idea as 'mass poisoning.' Meanwhile, a watchdog report say that the quality of water in England and Wales are at an all time high and has never been so good. Nearly all the water tested last year met national and European Union standards. (Photo by Ian Waldie/Getty Images)
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Arlington, UNITED STATES: A toothbrush with toothpaste sits on a sink in Arlington, Virginia, 17 July 2007. The US Food and Drug Administration has warned consumers to avoid toothpaste made in China after finding a poisonous chemical, diethylene glycol (DEG), which is commonly used in antifreeze, in several brands imported from the country. AFP PHOTO/SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
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They spread the word on Facebook groups, like that of the New York State Coalition Opposed to Fluoridation, which blames fluoride for problems including thyroid damage and was slammed in 2012 for falsely claiming that the federal government "recommends avoiding fluoridated water when making infant formula." Reddit users claim fluoride kills gut bacteria. And on Twitter, fluoride is regularly called a cancer-causing neurotoxin.

The anti-fluoride movement has also made headway offline. In June, the Texas Republican Party opposed water fluoridation in its 2018 platform. In New Jersey, where more than 80 percent of residents do not have fluoridated water, the town of East Brunswick stopped fluoridating three years ago after Mayor David Stahl called it "mass medication of the public," a familiar refrain on anti-fluoridation forums. In Brooksville, Florida, a city of 8,000 about an hour north of Tampa, Mayor Betty Erhard has said for years that fluoride is a toxin and a waste of taxpayer money. Next month, at her urging, Brooksville will vote on removing it.

 

"I believe that people should consent to what's in their water," Erhard said. Some townspeople agree.

"Fluoride is a dangerous cancer-causing agent. I don't even like taking a shower in it," one wrote on Erhard's Facebook page.

CONTROVERSY FROM THE VERY START

The first place in America to receive fluoridated water was Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1945, when residents there became guinea pigs for the theory that boosting existing natural fluoride levels in water would decrease tooth decay, particularly in children. The experiment, by the United States Public Health Service, was done without residents' consent — still a point of contention among anti-fluoridationists.

The experiment was so successful that 11 years into what was supposed to be a 15-year study, researchers announced the rate of cavities among Grand Rapids' 30,000 schoolchildren had dropped by 60 percent. But not everyone was pleased.

"I was called a murderer and a communist," Dr. Winston Prothro, director of public health in Grand Rapids during the early days of fluoridation, told The Washington Post in 1988. "I must have had letters from every city in America, and plenty from other countries, too. It fell on me to defend the physical and moral health of our entire city."

Since then, the conspiracy theories have evolved from fears of a communist plot to other worries about purported dangers of fluoride — an abundant element that occurs naturally in water, even when it's not added by the government.

"Now, you have this weird backlash where people think that anything that is a chemical is bad, even though everything is a chemical," said University of Miami associate professor Joseph Uscinski, co-author of the book "American Conspiracy Theories." "There are groups of people who think that if something isn't natural, it is somehow impure or bad, and it grosses them out."

To experts, objecting to fluoride is nonsensical. The compound, consumed in water or applied topically through toothpaste or mouthwash, prevents cavities by replacing weakened structures in the teeth, said Dr. Kerry Maguire, associate clinical investigator of Forsyth, an independent research institute specializing in oral health.

It's true that too much fluoride can be dangerous — one complication is skeletal fluorosis, which causes stiffening and pain of the joints and bones or abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting — but those effects only occur with prolonged exposure to a far higher level of fluoride than is found in public water systems in the U.S., experts say. In this country, the only common side effect of fluoridation is fluorosis of the teeth — minor staining that is often only visible to a dentist.

THE ANTI-FLUORIDE MOVEMENT

Today, nearly 75 percent of the U.S. receives fluoridated water from community water systems.

That's a number that Paul Connett, a chemistry professor emeritus at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York, hopes to get down to zero.

"There's umpteen ways that fluoride can cause damage," said Connett, executive director of the nonprofit Fluoride Action Network, which aims to end fluoridation worldwide.

Connett was initially skeptical of concerns about fluoride when his wife asked him two decades ago about its health effects.

"The prevailing attitude is that people who are opposed to fluoride are crazy, so I didn't want to be stigmatized in that way," Connett said.

But the more he looked into it, the more convinced Connett became that fluoride was indeed toxic.

He now cites what he bills as a "dynamite" 2017 study that concluded that higher prenatal fluoride exposure was associated with lower cognitive outcomes in children in Mexico.

The findings, he says, are consistent with more than 50 other studies that concluded that fluoride lowers IQ.

But many dental experts dismiss such studies as bogus, particularly because many of them were done in other countries, where natural fluoride levels are far higher than in the U.S. and there may be other factors, like polluted water.

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The conspiracy theories of President Trump and his inner circle
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The conspiracy theories of President Trump and his inner circle

Trump and the 'birther' claim

Trump has made remarks on multiple occasions in his past suggesting former President Barack Obama "doesn't have a birth certificate." Nearing the end of his campaign trail, Trump finally admitted in September 2016 that Obama "was born in the United States."

Here is a 2011 excerpt from his statement on the conspiracy theory surrounding the "birther" claim

"He doesn't have a birth certificate, or if he does, there's something on that certificate that is very bad for him. Now, somebody told me -- and I have no idea if this is bad for him or not, but perhaps it would be -- that where it says 'religion,' it might have 'Muslim.' And if you're a Muslim, you don't change your religion, by the way."

Trump and the wiretapping claim

On March 4, the president accused former President Barack Obama of wiretapping the phones at his New York home in Trump Tower in a series of Saturday morning tweets.

"I'd bet a good lawyer could make a great case out of the fact that President Obama was tapping my phones in October, just prior to Election!," one tweet read.

FBI Director James Comey later renounced this claim at a rare public House Intelligence Committee hearing.

Trump: China created global warming

On November 6, 2012, Trump tweeted the following:

"The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive."

The issues of global warming and climate change have long been proved valid by the science community's vast majority.

Alex Jones' Infowars, Trump tie Sen. Ted Cruz's father to Kennedy assassination

An April 2016 article in Infowars -- a site affiliated with conspiracy theorist Alex Jones -- titled "WAS CRUZ’S FATHER LINKED TO THE JFK ASSASSINATION?" makes the case that Sen. Ted Cruz's father, Rafael Cruz, was linked to Lee Harvey Oswald, the man believed to have killed John F. Kennedy.

In May 2016, Trump brought up an Enquirer story featuring Cruz's father pictured with Oswald, saying, "I mean, what was he doing — what was he doing with Lee Harvey Oswald shortly before the death? Before the shooting? It’s horrible."

He brought the storyline up again one day after accepting the Republican presidential nomination in July 2016.

Trump: Obama "founded ISIS"

Trump touted his plan to "bomb the sh*t out of ISIS" many times while on the 2016 campaign stump -- and added to his ISIS rhetoric the claim that then-President Barack Obama "founded ISIS."

Trump outlined this claim in a Florida campaign speech:

"ISIS is honoring President Obama. He’s the founder of ISIS. He founded ISIS. I would say the co-founder would be Crooked Hillary Clinton."

Trump also suggested Obama was sympathetic to terrorists in June of 2016.

Trump suggests Justice Antonin Scalia was assassinated

"It's a horrible topic," Trump said of Justice Scalia's death during a radio interview with conservative host Michael Savage. At this point, Trump was entering a space in which Savage had already called for a Warren Investigation into Scalia's death -- the same type of investigation that looked into JFK's shooting. In that context, Trump continued his remarks, saying, "But they say they found a pillow on his face, which is a pretty unusual place to find a pillow. I can’t tell you what—I can’t give you an answer. You know, usually I like to give you answers. But I literally just heard it a little while ago. It’s just starting to come out now, as you know, Michael.”

Alex Jones on Hillary Clinton's mental state

On August 4, 2016, Alex Jones' Infowars published a video titled, "The Truth About Hillary's Bizarre Behavior," in which copy reads, "...Hillary’s conduct also strongly indicates she is a sociopath who has a total lack of empathy for other people."

Jones at one point in August 2016 commented on the system in which Trump would continually pick up talking points from his show, saying, "It is surreal to talk about issues here on air, and then word-for-word hear Trump say it two days later."

Trump: 2016 election is "rigged"

Weeks before 2016 Election Day, Trump appeared on FOX News with Sean Hannity, discussing how the election is rigged because of the "1.8 million people" who vote, even though they're dead.

“You have 1.8 million people who are dead, who are registered to vote, Trump said. "And some of them absolutely vote. Now, tell me how they do that.

After he was elected president, Trump also claimed that there was "serious voter fraud" in the 2016 election, and promised a major investigation into such occurrence.

Roger Stone: Chelsea Clinton needed plastic surgery to hide identity of real father

Longtime Trump friend and political adviser Roger Stone details in his book, "The Clintons' War on Women," that Chelsea Clinton needed "four plastic surgeries" to cover up the identity of her real father, who Stone claims is former Associate Attorney General Webb Hubbell.

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"It's as though you have something you want to prove, so you look at other countries that have naturally high levels of fluoride at multiples of what we have in the United States, and they see changes and then they backwards extrapolate it to water fluoridation," said Johnson of the American Fluoridation Society. "You can't do that in science."

Some anti-fluoridationists oppose all fluoride, including in toothpaste. (Sales of fluoride-free toothpastes are relatively small but projected to grow; an article in the dental journal Gerodontology in August found that such toothpastes have "no impact" on preventing cavities.) Fluoride opponents seize on the warning label on toothpaste cautioning that a poison control center should be called if a child accidentally ingests too much, saying that proves fluoride is a toxin.

 

The American Dental Association, which has supported water fluoridation since 1950, disputes that, pointing out that the amount of fluoride in an entire tube of toothpaste wouldn't be fatal, but other additives would likely cause a child to vomit.

As for fluoride in water, "there have been literally thousands of studies published in peer-reviewed journals that demonstrate the safety of community water fluoridation," said Dr. Brittany Seymour, the American Dental Association's consumer spokeswoman, calling it "the single most important public health measure to prevent cavities."

The Fluoride Action Network disagrees. The group sued the Environmental Protection Agency in federal court in San Francisco last April to stop water fluoridation.

"Which is more important: protecting your children's brain, or protecting your children's teeth?" Connett said.

He expects the case to be heard next August. The EPA said it does not comment on pending litigation.

MORE THAN A TOOTHACHE

Kentucky is the only state to require fluoridation in every community water system that serves 1,500 or more people, and as a result, 99.99 percent of residents receive fluoridated water. Anti-fluoridationists have tried to reverse the law, but it's not going anywhere, said Dr. Julie Watts McKee, the state dental director of the Kentucky Oral Health Program, a public initiative that carries out community programs to reduce oral disease. The cost to fluoridate water for a person's entire lifetime is cheaper than the price of a single filling, McKee said.

"The science — the true science — proves its effectiveness over and over again," she said. "It helps people of all ages. It helps the kids better because they have growing teeth and are at a cavity-prone age, but it helps us all."

Elsewhere in the country, the percentage of residents receiving water varies, with Hawaii at the low end at 11.7 percent.

It's not always a health fear that keeps states from raising fluoridation levels; sometimes the decision is budgetary. Either way, the low levels are troubling to fluoridation proponents, who argue that it gives everyone a shot at fighting cavities — regardless of access to dental care.

The effects of cavities, particularly untreated ones, can be far-reaching.

"It's very, very difficult to concentrate when you have a toothache, and if we are trying to help children succeed in school … this is an important component that is often overlooked," Maguire said. "It is a winnable war."

In Brooksville, Florida, where the vote on removing fluoride is just a couple weeks away, Mayor Erhard has high hopes that her townspeople will vote it out. The city has spent about $19,000 on fluoridation over the past five years, and she would like to see that money go someplace else — such as repairing the city's roads.

Erhard said she doesn't worry about how kids will fare with nonfluoridated water, so long as parents do their part to encourage good oral health.

"If you're feeding them a lot of sugar, naturally, you're going to get a lot of cavities," she said. "I can tell you firsthand from my experience that I've always brushed and I love going to the dentist, and my teeth are healthy."

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