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My Turn: Fluoride beneficial, despite distorted arguments

Posted: Friday, September 14, 2007

It's very sad to see some Juneau residents who posture themselves as public health advocates distort scientific research to suit their own purposes, despite the fact that their fellow citizens will suffer if they succeed in keeping fluoride out of our municipal water supply. Do these folks really know more than the highly qualified scientists with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Surgeon General, and a host of other reputable, and very cautious, public health agencies?

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Here's a couple of examples from a letter published in the Empire on Sept. 6. The writer said some of our local medical professionals "haven't read the latest research" on fluoride, so of course they can't be believed. Two quotes from his letter:

"A peer-reviewed study by Harvard researchers published last year found that those who drank moderately fluoridated water at this age (6-8) had a five to seven times greater chance of later developing osteosarcoma, an often fatal bone disease."

In point of fact, that was not a peer-reviewed study by Harvard researchers. It was a thesis by a Harvard grad student, based partly on years of research by her faculty adviser, Chester Douglass. The thesis, which was not published under the rigorous peer-review process, contended that Douglass's own data showed a correlation between fluoride and osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer. Douglass emphatically stated the data showed no such correlation, but the dispute became a major controversy at Harvard. The professor came under fire from an environmental group because he has connections to a major toothpaste manufacturer, and thus had a conflict of interest. Bad for him, and unfortunate for the whole issue because it smacks of a cover-up.

Harvard did an investigation and released a brief statement exonerating Douglass, but the university did not say whether it sided with the findings of the professor or his student. So what we have left is a disagreement between a professor and a student, and not a peer-reviewed study by Harvard researchers. Huge difference. It means nothing in this debate. But surely, the writer knew that.

His letter continues: "Last year, the National Research Council identified numerous studies indicating that fluoride, even in low doses, reduces thyroid function." He mentioned the same study in a previous letter.

In point of fact, that study addressed naturally occurring levels of fluoride that are several times higher than the amount added to municipal water supplies. Fluoride is an extremely common mineral found around the world, and is sometimes found in untreated water at concentrations of 4 milligrams per liter, or higher. The NRC looked at standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency that established a safety level of 4 mg/L and concluded that children exposed to that amount could suffer adverse health effects, such as pitting and damage to the teeth. So is that an indictment of municipal water systems with fluoridated water at much lower concentrations? Hardly.

A statement issued by the National Research Council when the report was released on March 22, 2006, noted: "The report does not examine the health risks or benefits of the artificially fluoridated water that millions of Americans drink, which contains 0.7 to 1.2 mg/L of fluoride." So the report did not even address the issue of lower levels of fluoride added to municipal water supplies, and it has no relevance here. But surely, Ottoson knew that.

The scientific community is near unanimous in endorsing fluoride. In the words of Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona, "Fluoridation is the single most effective public health measure to prevent tooth decay and improve oral health over a lifetime, for both children and adults." So who will pay the highest price if fluoride is kept out of Juneau's water supply? The children and families that can't afford annual trips to the dentist.

But surely, the letter writer knows that, too.

• Lee is a science columnist for ABCNews.com. Sherie is a registered nurse.



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