Fluoride: Industry's Toxic Coup
by Joel Griffith

For nearly 50 years, the US government and media have been telling the public that fluoride compounds (generally referred to simply as "fluoride") are safe and beneficial chemicals that reduce cavities - especially in children.

Manufacturers add it to toothpaste, municipalities put it in the public's drinking water. But fluoride has another side that the government never mentions. It is a toxic industrial pollutant.

For decades, US industry has rained heavy doses of waste fluoride on people. By the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) last estimate, at least 155,000 tons a year are released into the air by US industrial plants. Emissions into lakes, rivers and oceans have been estimated to be as high as 500,000 tons a year.

While people living near or working in heavy fluoride-emitting industrial plants receive the highest doses, the general population has not been spared. Because fluoride compounds are not biodegradable, they gradually accumulate in the environment, in the food chain, and in people's bones and teeth.

If this general increase in fluoride dose were proved harmful to humans, the impact on industry would be major. The nation's air is contaminated by fluoride emissions from the production of iron, steel, aluminum, copper, lead and zinc; phosphates (essential for the manufacture of all agricultural fertilizers); plastics; gasoline; brick, cement, glass, ceramics, and the multitudinous other products made from clay; coal-burning electrical powerplants; and uranium processing.

As for water, the leading industrial fluoride polluters are the producers and processors of glass, pesticides and fertilizers, steel and aluminum, chemicals and metals - copper and brass, titanium, superalloys, and refractory metals for military use.

Industry and government have long had a powerful motive for claiming that fluoride is safe. But maintaining this position has not been easy since fluoride is one of the most toxic substances known. "Airborne fluorides," reports the US Department of Agriculture, "have caused more worldwide damage to domestic animals than any other air pollutant." Evidence that industrial fluoride has been killing and crippling human beings has existed at least since the 1930s.

Primal Poison

Of the highly toxic elements that are naturally present throughout the earth's crust - such as arsenic, mercury and lead - fluoride is by far the most abundant. Normally, only minute amounts of these elements are found on the earth's surface, but industry mines vast tonnages - none in greater quantity than fluorine, which is most often found in the form of calcium fluoride.

As early as 1850, fluoride emissions from the iron and copper industries poisoned crops, livestock, and people. By the turn of the century, lawsuits and burdensome regulations threatened the existence of these industries in Germany and England.

In 1933, when the world's first major air pollution disaster struck Belgium's Meuse Valley. Several thousand people became violently ill and 60 died. Kaj Roholm, the world's leading authority on fluoride hazards, placed the blame on fluoride.

It was abundantly clear to both industry and government that US industrial expansion would necessitate releasing millions of tons of waste fluoride into the environment. It was equally clear that US industrial expansion would be accompanied by complaints and lawsuits over fluoride damage on an unprecedented scale.

Liability Into Asset

During the industrial explosion of the 1920s, the US Public Health Service (PHS) was under the jurisdiction of Treasury Secretary Andrew W. Mellon, a founder and major stockholder of the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa). In 1931, a PHS dentist named H. Trendley Dean was dispatched to remote towns in the West where drinking-water wells contained high concentrations of natural fluoride. His mission: to determine how much fluoride people could tolerate without sustaining obvious damage to their teeth. Dean found that teeth in these high-fluoride towns were often discolored and eroded, but he also reported that they appeared to have fewer cavities than average.

The University of Cincinnati's Kettering Laboratory, funded largely by top fluoride-emitters such as Alcoa, quickly dominated fluoride safety research. A book by Kettering scientist (and Reynolds Metals consultant) E. J. Largent, was admittedly written in part to "aid industry in lawsuits arising from fluoride damage." Nonetheless, the book became a basic international reference work.

In 1939, ALCOA-funded scientist Gerald J. Cox was one of the first to note that "The present trend toward complete removal of fluoride from water and food may need some reversal." Cox also proposed that this "apparently worthless by-product" might reduce cavities in children. Cox fluoridated lab rats, concluded that fluoride reduced cavities and declared flatly: "The case should be regarded as proved."

In 1939, the first public proposal that the US should fluoridate its water supplies was made, not by a doctor, or dentist, but by Cox, an industry scientist working for a company threatened by fluoride damage claims.

Undoubtedly, most proponents were sincere in their belief that the procedure was safe and beneficial. Nonetheless, their unquestioning endorsement of fluoridation made possible a master public relations stroke. If the leaders of dentistry, medicine, and public health supported pouring fluoride into the public's drinking water - proclaiming to the nation that there was a "wide margin of safety" - how were they going to turn around later and say industry's fluoride pollution was dangerous?

If fluoride could be introduced as a health-enhancing substance that should be added to the environment for the children's sake, those opposing it would look like quacks and lunatics.

ALCOA Foils Accountability

The name of the company with the biggest stake in fluoride's safety was ALCOA - whose name is stamped all over the early history of water fluoridation.

By 1938, the aluminum industry (which then consisted solely of ALCOA) was placed on a wartime schedule. During World War II, industry's fluoride pollution increased sharply because of stepped-up production of ALCOA aluminum for fighters and bombers. And fluoride was the aluminum industry's most devastating pollutant.

Following the war, hundreds of fluoride damage suits were filed around the country against producers of aluminum, iron and steel, phosphates, chemicals, and other major polluters.

Most of the lawsuits, particularly those claiming damage to human health, were settled out of court, thus avoiding legal precedents. In a rare exception, a federal court found in Paul M. and Verla Martin v. Reynolds Metals (1955) that an Oregon couple had sustained "serious injury to their livers, kidneys and digestive functions" from eating "farm produce contaminated by [fluoride] fumes" from a nearby Reynolds aluminum plant.

ALCOA and six other metals and chemical companies joined with Reynolds as "friends of the court" to get the decision reversed. Finally, in a time-honored corporate solution, Reynolds mooted the case by buying the Martins' ranch for a hefty price.

"Friends" of Children

The postwar casualties of industrial fluoride pollution were many - from forests to livestock to farmers to smog-stricken urban residents - but national attention had been diverted by fluoride's heavily publicized new image. In 1945, shortly before the war's end, water fluoridation abruptly emerged with the full force of the federal government behind it.

In that year, two Michigan cities were selected for an official "15-year" comparison study to determine if fluoride could safely reduce cavities in children, and fluoride was pumped into the drinking water of Grand Rapids.

In 1946, despite the fact that the official 15-year experiment in Michigan had barely begun, six more US cities were allowed to fluoridate their water.

In 1947, Oscar R. Ewing, a long-time ALCOA lawyer, was appointed head of the Federal Security Agency, a position that placed him in charge of the Public Health Service. Under Ewing, a national water fluoridation campaign rapidly materialized, spearheaded by the PHS. Over the next three years, 87 additional cities were fluoridated. The two-city Michigan experiment (the only scientifically objective test of fluoridation's safety and benefits) was abandoned before it was half over.

The Father of All Spin Doctors

The government's official reason for this unscientific haste was "popular demand." This enthusiasm was not really surprising, considering Oscar Ewing's public relations strategist for the water fluoridation campaign was none other than Sigmund Freud's nephew Edward L. Bernays.

Bernays, also known as the "father of public relations," pioneered the application of his uncle's theories to advertising and government propaganda. The government's fluoridation campaign was one of his most enduring successes.

In his 1928 book, Propaganda, Bernays expounded on "the mechanism" that controls the public mind. "Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society," Bernays wrote, "constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.... [O]ur minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of...."

Almost overnight, under Bernays' mass mind-molding, the popular image of fluoride - which at the time was being widely sold as rat and bug poison - became that of a beneficial provider of gleaming smiles, absolutely safe, and good for children,

The prospect of the government mass-medicating the water supplies with a well-known rat poison to prevent a non-lethal disease flipped the switches of skeptics across the country. But, under Bernays' spell, fluoride's opponents were permanently engraved on the public mind as crackpots and right-wing loonies.

In 1950 the PHS officially endorsed fluoridation. Since then, two-thirds of the nation's reservoirs have been fluoridated and about 143,000 tons of fluoride are pumped in yearly to keep them that way.

Today, companies forced to reduce their fluoride emission can even recoup some of the expense by selling the waste to cities for water fluoridation.

Protected Pollutant

In 1972, the newly formed EPA surveyed atmospheric polluters and reported: "The fluorides currently emitted [by industry] may damage economic crops, farm animals, and construction [i.e. buildings, statuary and glass]...." Nonetheless, the report concluded that "the potential to cause fluoride effects in man is negligible."

Another EPA report confirmed that, "Fluoride emissions do have adverse effects on livestock and vegetation" but insisted that "fluoride emissions from primary aluminum plants have no significant effect on human health. " In other words, the stuff withers plants, cripples cows, and even eats holes in stone, but it doesn't hurt people. Nature ever surprises.

Whenever new scientific evidence threatens fluoride's protected pollutant status, the government immediately appoints a commission - typically composed of veteran fluoride defenders and no opponents. Usually, these commissions dismiss the new evidence and reaffirm the status quo.

In 1983, however, a PHS panel of "world-class experts" reviewed the safety data on fluoride in drinking water and was surprised to discover that much of the vaunted evidence of fluoride's safety barely existed. The panel recommended caution, especially in regard to fluoride exposure for children.

But when Surgeon General Everett Koop's office released the official report a month later, the panel's most important conclusions and recommendations had been deleted, apparently without consulting its members.

Any suggestion that low doses of fluoride might be harmful was thrown out. In its place, the government substituted this blanket statement: "There exists no directly applicable scientific documentation of adverse medical effects at levels of fluoride below 8 ppm [parts per million]."

The panel's final draft had firmly recommended that "the fluoride content of drinking water should be no greater than 1.4-2.4 ppm for children up to and including age 9 because of a lack of information regarding fluoride effect on the skeleton in children (to age 9), and potential cardiotoxic effects [heart damage]...."

To quote one exchange from the transcript of the panel's meeting:

Dr. Wallach: "You would have to have rocks in your head, in my opinion, to allow your child much more than 2 ppm."

Dr. Rowe: "I think we all agree on that."

In 1985, basing its action on the Surgeon General's altered report, the EPA raised the amount of fluoride allowed in drinking water from 2 to 4 ppm for children and everybody else.

Bones of Contention

Between 1990-92, eight different epidemiological studies suggested that water fluoridation may have increased the rate of bone fractures in females and males of all ages across the US. A 1992 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that "low levels of fluoride may increase the risk of hip fracture in the elderly."

Since 1957, the bone fracture rate among male children and adolescents has increased sharply in the US according to the National Center for Health Statistics. The National Research Council (NCI) reports that the US hip fracture rate is now the highest in the world. "Clearly," JAMA editorialized in 1991, "it is now appropriate to revisit the issue of water fluoridation."

Evidence that fluoride is a carcinogen has cropped up since at least the 1940s. A 1956 federal study found nearly twice as many bone defects (of a type considered possibly pre-malignant) among young males in the fluoridated city of Newburgh, New York.

In 1977, congressional hearings revealed that the government had never cancer-tested fluoride. The NCI was ordered to begin an investigation.

Twelve years later, in 1989, the study was finally completed. It found "equivocal evidence" that fluoride caused bone cancer in male rats. The NCI found that nationwide evidence "of a rising rate of bone and joint cancer of all ages combined, due mainly to trends under the age of 20, was seen in the 'fluoridated' counties but not in the 'non-fluoridated' counties."

A new commission, chaired by venerable fluoridation proponent and PHS official Frank E. Young, was impaneled to respond to the NCI's alarming findings. The commission concluded that it could find "no evidence establishing an association between fluoride and cancer in humans." As for the evidence on bone fractures, the commission merely stated, "further studies are required."

Government Doubts

William Marcus, an EPA senior science adviser and toxicologist maintains that "fluoride is a carcinogen by any standard we use. I believe EPA should act immediately to protect the public, not just on the cancer data, but on the evidence of bone fractures, arthritis, mutagenicity and other effects." Marcus adds that a still-unreleased study by the New Jersey State Health Department has found that the bone cancer rate is six times higher among young males in fluoridated communities.

"The level of fluoride the government allows the public is based on scientifically fraudulent information and altered reports," charges Robert Carton, an EPA environmental scientist. "People can be harmed simply by drinking water," Carton warns.

Does fluoridation reduce cavities in children? Over the years, many health professionals - especially abroad - have decided the beneficial effects of fluoride are mostly hokum; but open debate has been stifled if not strangled.

During the early 1980s, New Zealand's most prominent fluoridation advocate was John Colquhoun, the country's chief dental officer. He styled himself an "ardent fluoridationist" until the day he tried to gather statistics to bolster the claim that fluoride was a boon to dental health.

"I observed that... the percentage of children who were free of dental decay was higher in the unfluoridated part of most health districts in New Zealand." Colquhoun reported. The national health department refused to allow Colquhoun to publish his findings and he was encouraged to resign.

In 1990, Colquhoun issued a warning that "the harmful effects of water fluoridation are more real than is generally admitted while the claimed dental benefit is negligible."

--Reprinted with permission from Covert Action Quarterly (Fall, 1992), 1500 Massachusetts Avenue No. 732, Washington, DC 20005, (202) 331-9763, caq@igc.apc.org. Annual subscriptions: $22.

Joel Griffiths is a medical writer who lives in New York City.