Europe largely does not fluoridate its water. For two reasons, this matters to us in Juneau as we decide whether to put fluoride back in city water.
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The first reason has been widely noted. Tooth decay among adults and children has declined in Europe at essentially the same rates as in the United States. This suggests that fluoridation is not the cause of the decline in tooth decay you have seen in your lifetime. If you lived in France or Germany, you would have seen the same decline. Mayor Bruce Botelho, when he voted to take fluoride out of the city water, relied on this point.
But Europe matters for a second reason that is, in my opinion, more important, and that is why Europe rejected fluoridation. James Patrick, Ph.D., a professor of chemistry and former antibiotics research scientist at the National Institute of Health, testified before Congress that "dentists campaigned vigorously in the English speaking countries very early and got fluoridation adopted because of its claimed dental benefits. But the opposition of fluoridation is not concerned with dental effects nearly as much as whole body toxicity." Patrick concluded: "In all of the countries that have rejected fluoridation it is conspicuous that biochemists, physiologists, pharmacologists, and enzymologists have been consulted and listened to."
When you do that, you quickly realize that fluoride is not a simple inert substance that only accumulates on the surfaces of the teeth to harden them. Patrick explained: "Fluoride is an enzyme poison, in the same class as cyanide oxalate, or azide, which means it is capable of a very wide variety of harmful effects even at low doses." It is probably this characteristic that explains why 13 winners of the Nobel prize - eight in chemistry and six in medicine - have opposed or expressed reservations about fluoridation.
Forty-four doctors at Bartlett Regional Hospital signed a resolution urging fluoridation because "there is no credible evidence to the contrary of fluoride's benefits." That is not true. Whole countries have rejected fluoridation because they concluded that the claimed benefits of fluoride do not justify administering this medication to the entire population - every man, woman, child and infant - through the water system for their whole lives.
In this country, other professionals are finally getting a seat at the table to evaluate fluoride. It is occurring in the context of water quality. The National Academy of Sciences convened a panel to examine the scientific literature on fluoride for the purpose of evaluating Environmental Protection Agency standards. Fluoride is an enzyme disrupter. The NAS report found credible evidence that fluoride, even at relatively low levels, could lead to increased bone fractures, decreased thyroid function, decreased brain function, kidney damage and arthritis-like conditions. Most surprising to me, the NAS report stated that the scientific literature did not permit a conclusion whether fluoride was or was not carcinogenic.
The EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C., probably has the largest single collection of professionals - toxicologists, biologists, chemists and engineers - anywhere in the world that deal with water quality. The union that represents these professionals opposes fluoridation. According to the union's Senior Vice President William Hirzy: "In summary, we hold that fluoridation is an unreasonable risk. That is, the toxicity of fluoride is so great and the purported benefits associated with it are so small - if there are any at all - that requiring every man, woman and child in America to ingest it borders on criminal behavior on the part of governments." That is a very strong conclusion but, if you read Hirzy's statement to Congress in 2000, he elaborates on the deliberate downgrading of scientific evidence that fluoride is carcinogenic (www.nofluoride.com/hirzy_senate.htm).
A member of the NAS panel will give two presentations in Juneau on the benefits and risks of fluoridation. Dr. Hardy Limeback, head of preventive dentistry at the University of Toronto, will focus on recent research and whether there are better ways to promote dental health for low-income children than fluoridation. We're all in this together and Limeback's talks will help us decide this important issue. Limeback will speak at 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 20, at the University of Alaska Southeast and at 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 21, at the Assembly Chambers.
Mary Alice McKeen is an attorney and administrative judge.