My recent perusal of Cecil Adams's answer to the question, Is fluoride a good thing or a danger? [The Straight Dope, February 2], makes me think it's time to rename his column "The Curved Dope," or perhaps "The Lazily Researched Dope."
As a freelance science writer and book reviewer, I've been puzzling over the thorny topic of water fluoridation almost as long as I've been reading and enjoying Cecil's normally insightful reports. Like the majority of our well-meaning but misinformed health authorities, I initially lumped the antifluoridationists in with the customary crowd of flat-earthers and assorted fringe conspiracy theorists that infest the Internet. After a good decade of carefully dissecting both pro- and antifluoridation viewpoints, however, I've come to the conclusion that the continued support of this outdated public health policy has less to do with sound science than with a kind of stubborn, quasi-religious faith in fluoridation as a panacea for bad oral hygiene.
Sadly, Cecil follows the lead of most mainstream science journalists and abandons the work of serious investigative reporting in favor of swallowing wholesale the usual tainted propaganda from government health officials. With just a tad more research he could have availed himself of many excellent resources debunking the American Dental Association's oft-quoted proclamation that fluoridation is "safe and effective." They include the sober and thoroughly balanced Web site fluoridealert.org, and award-winning BBC reporter Christopher Bryson's recent muckraker, The Fluoride Deception. Contrary to Cecil's ad hominem attack, however, he won't find much paranoia in those venues; only meticulous research and references to hundreds of peer-reviewed studies highlighting water fluoridation's toxicity, as well as its woefully undeserved status as a cavity fighter.
Unfortunately, a brief letter to the editor allows scant space to summarize all the broken logic, shoddy science, and dogmatic posturing of the profluoridation camp, so I'll just cite one major study here that Cecil completely overlooked. In the July 2000 issue of the American Dental Association's own publication, JADA, Featherstone et al demonstrated decisively that fluoride works only by application to the surface of the teeth--as in brushing with toothpaste--and not by ingestion. This finding was even echoed by that great bastion of public health, the Centers for Disease Control, ironically the same organization that calls fluoridation one of the 20th century's top public health programs. In other words, far from being "salubrious," as Cecil opines, swallowing fluoridated water has about as much protective value against cavities as drinking suntan lotion does against sunburn.
Sorry, Cecil, but you dropped the proverbial medicine ball on this one.
Cecil Adams replies:
Read the stuff you're citing a little more carefully, bub. While fluoride works mainly by topical application, drinking fluoridated water is as good a method of topical application as any. John Featherstone, author of the study you mention, writes, "The clinical effects of fluoride . . . can be optimized by using delivery methods that bring fluoride to the surface of the tooth and into the plaque. . . . These topical delivery methods are equally applicable to adults and children and include fluoride in beverages and foods, dental products and drinking water" (Featherstone, John, "The Science and Practice of Caries Prevention," JADA, July 2000, page 892, available online). As for fluoridealert.org, I notice that Stephen Barrett of Quackwatch includes its sponsoring organization, Fluoride Action Network, on a list of "questionable organizations" he views "with considerable distrust."