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A crack appears in the fluoride front

After surveying the growing evidence, a high-profile advocate has second thoughts about the safety of fluoride

By Michael Downey
Special to The Toronto Star
April 25, 1999

Two years ago, parents in the United States began noticing the word ``poison'' on their toothpaste tubes.

The reason: U.S. drug regulators were beginning to doubt the safety of fluoride, particularly to children, and demanded warnings on the labels.

Health Canada has not followed the U.S. lead, although fluoride toothpaste here does carry a mild warning to avoid swallowing it. But attitudes toward fluoride in this country are also beginning to change.

Dr. Hardy Limeback is a leading Canadian fluoride authority who is often cited by health officials in their defense of fluoridated water. He is also a long-standing consultant to the Canadian Dental Association and a professor of dentistry at the University of Toronto.

But in an interview last week, he conceded that fluoride may be destroying our bones, our teeth and our overall health. Although he still believes fluoride in toothpaste is effective against tooth decay, he says it doesn't need to be added to our water and we may be taking unnecessary risks by doing so.

``There is no point swallowing fluoridated water. The only benefit comes with direct contact with the teeth.''

Limeback is currently studying fluoride buildup in the body, and his results, like those of other studies, are worrisome.

``What we're finding indicates a trend: Torontonians have double the fluoride levels in their hip bones compared to Montreal, where water is not fluoridated.''

What effect these high fluoride deposits in our bones will have is unclear, he says, ``but we know that in areas of the world where water is naturally high in fluoride, skeletal fluorosis is a widespread problem.''

Skeletal fluorosis is a debilitating condition that occurs when fluoride accumulates in bones, making them extremely weak and brittle. In parts of China, India and Turkey where water is naturally high in fluoride, residents tend to age early and die before the age of 50, weak, arthritic and hunched over. ``Old'' men of 30 drag themselves around, leaning on sticks; their bones shatter like glass when they fall. Women give birth to dead babies after pregnancies of only four months.

`Children under three should never use fluoridated toothpaste. Or drink fluoridated water. And baby formula must never be made up using Toronto tap water. Never'
- Dr. Hardy Limeback
Fluoride expert

The earliest symptom? Mottled and brittle teeth, a condition known as dental fluorosis. The condition weakens teeth, making them porous and thus easily stained. The mottled spots start off white but typically turn brown. It's permanent and recurring, and treating it is very costly.

If this description sounds familiar, there's a good reason. Limeback says ``most'' of the children he treats in his Mississauga practice suffer dental fluorosis, and by some estimates, 60 per cent of all children living in fluoridated areas have it.

What causes it in these children is not just the water. Young children do not have the reflexes to avoid swallowing toothpaste when brushing their teeth. Some even enjoy the taste of it. And because they're developing rapidly, children are more susceptible to the negative effects of fluoride buildup.

``Children under three should never use fluoridated toothpaste. Or drink fluoridated water. And baby formula must never be made up using Toronto tap water. Never. In fluoridated areas, people should never use fluoride supplements. We tried to get them banned for children but (the dentists) wouldn't even look at the evidence we presented,'' says Limeback, emphasizing that we are now spending more treating dental fluorosis than we would spend treating cavities if water were not fluoridated.

For decades, anti-fluoride activists have blamed fluoride (which is only slightly less poisonous than arsenic) for a variety of problems, including osteoporosis, bone cancer, kidney problems, arthritis, genetic damage and birth defects, premature aging, lowered intelligence, and Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder.

Although there are numerous studies suggesting links between fluoride and various illnesses, pro-fluoridationists have always contended - correctly - that the exact effects of long-term fluoridation on our bodies have not been established beyond a shadow of a doubt.

As Chris Clark, a high-profile fluoride booster and professor of dentistry at the University of British Columbia, says, ``There is no proof that fluoride causes brittle bones or cancer'' at current concentrations.

(Toronto's water supply is 1 part per million (ppm) fluoride. Toothpaste, typically, contains 1,500 ppm.)

Limeback, who until very recently would have been considered an ally of Clark's, vehemently disagrees.

``We absolutely know about the tragic consequences of higher levels of fluoride, and we know it builds up over time.

``These people haven't done any studies to find out what effect fluoride accumulation will have at current levels. How can they say it's safe when the studies haven't been done? Right now, we have people who have been ingesting fluoride for 35 years. What happens in another 50 years, when these people have been adding this poison to their bones for 85 years?''

Limeback points out that almost all the beverages we drink (beer, pop, juice) are made with fluoridated water. Fish and other foods also contain fluoride. Many of the vegetables we eat are fertilized with compounds containing fluoride; they are irrigated with, and washed and cooked in, fluoridated water. So we are getting far more fluoride than it appears.

And, considering safe fluoride levels in terms of concentrations (parts per million) is a dubious practice, since at least half the fluoride we ingest fuses with bones and teeth and never leaves the body.

So although a big one-time dose of fluoride can kill - as happened to a New York boy during a fluoride treatment and to people in Alaska when too much fluoride was accidentally added to the water - Limeback says it's the cumulative effect we should be most worried about.

Contrary to popular belief, there is no proof that fluoride fights cavities. In the U.S., the government recently ordered toothpaste manufacturers to stop claiming it does until they could prove it. (None bothered to try.)

Studies have shown that children in B.C., where most water is not fluoridated, have better teeth than children here, where it is.

And while it's true there's no absolute proof that fluoride, at established levels, isn't safe, there is also no proof, as Limeback points out, that it is.

The stand most health officials seem to be taking these days is that, until we get proof that fluoride is harmful, it will continue to be added to water. (This may seem ironic, given that companies who want to market new drugs must prove they are safe first whereas a drug already in our water will stay there until we prove it isn't safe.)

Absolute proof may be hard to come by, but the evidence is abundant and compelling.

A U.S. congressional subcommittee announced after hearings in 1977 that it could no longer assure the public that fluoride doesn't cause cancer; later tests, which it ordered, showed a link to bone and liver cancer.

The U.S. National Research Council reported that fluoride is dangerous to health and that ``reductions in fluoride in drinking water would be easier to administer, monitor and evaluate'' than reductions in foods, beverages and dental products.

A half dozen studies in the Journal of the American Medical Association show more hip fractures in fluoridated areas - up to 300 per cent more, according to one report.

Appearing on a recent Canadian television show, a former scientist with the Environmental Protection Agency called fluoridation ``the biggest fraud of the century.''

Dr. John Colquhoun, Principal Dental Officer for the New Zealand city of Auckland, once advised mandatory fluoridation; so did Dr. Richard Foulkes, special consultant to the B.C. Minister of Health. Both later reversed their recommendations.

Wrote Colquhoun in 1982: ``Common sense should tell us that if a poison circulating in a child's body can damage tooth-forming cells, then other harm is also likely.''

Foulkes wrote in 1992: ``There is evidence that fluoridation does not prevent tooth decay and may cause serious illness, birth defects and premature death.''

In the final analysis, perhaps the proof is in the water. So, does Limeback drink tap water?

``I purchase distilled water at a local drugstore and we use it for all our beverage needs,'' he says.

``Look, I've been drinking fluoride for 35 years and I'm worried.

``I have joint problems which cleared up when I switched to non-fluoridated water . . . fluoride is a pollutant, so why would you want to swallow that stuff?''

Michael Downey is a Toronto freelance writer.

Last modified: 2 June 1999

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