Conspiracy Theories

"Impurifying our precious bodily fluids"

Fear of fluoridation takes a left turn


In the 1964 movie Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, General Jack D. Ripper launches a nuclear strike against the Soviet Union to stop the Communist infiltration that he fears will "sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids." In the 1960s, moviegoers instantly recognized that Ripper's character was a parody of a right-wing paranoid. It was a leftist highbrow swipe at the John Birch Society's (JBS) opposition to the campaign to fluoridate community water supplies in the 1950s. The JBS opposed the fluoridation of public water supplies on the grounds that it is an involuntary mass medical treatment that violates individual rights.

It is a curious anomaly that anti-fluoridationism became a right-wing cause. After all, it was muckraking New Deal journalist Rachel Lynn Palmer and physician Isidore Alpher who first warned in their 1937 classic 40,000,000 Guinea Pig Children against the dangers posed by fluorine compounds to children. Most pernicious was the invention by a conscienceless corporation of a toothpaste with fluoride.

"Manufacturing a dentifrice containing fluorine seems nothing short of grotesque," they declared. "The possibility of such dentifrices being marketed is an excellent example of why only those accepted by the American Dental Association should be used."

Now, however, the left-wing environmentalist paranoids are beginning to embrace their lost anti-fluoridationist tradition. The jumpstart to modern left-wing opposition to fluoridation can be traced to an alarmist article, "Fluoride: Commie Plot or Capitalist Ploy" in the Fall 1992 issue of Covert Action Quarterly. That article claimed that fluoridation was devised in the 1940s chiefly as a way for the aluminum industry to dispose of toxic fluoride wastes. Instead of dumping the wastes in landfills, industry dumped them in the nation's water supplies, and at a profit too.

In 1992, libertarian theorist Murray Rothbard reprised the Covert Action story in an article for the John Birch Society-affiliated magazine The New American. In that article Rothbard wondered, "It has always been a bit of a mystery to me why left-environmentalists, who shriek in horror at a bit of Alar on apples, who cry 'cancer' even more absurdly than the boy cried 'Wolf,' who hate every chemical additive known to man, still cast their benign approval upon fluoride, a highly toxic and probably carcinogenic substance."

Of course, the answer to this conundrum is that the left couldn't oppose fluoridation because it was originally promoted as a public health measure. However, as soon as it was reframed as a "capitalist ploy," left-wingers could respectably begin to campaign against it. Fear of fluoride was on.

During the 2000 presidential campaign, Green Party candidate and left-wing icon Ralph Nader came out against fluoridation. Now groups like the Sierra Club claim that there are "valid concerns" about the "potential adverse impact of fluoridation on the environment, wildlife, and human health." Often-cited "adverse health impacts" of fluoridated water include bone cancer, depressed thyroid function, lowered IQ, weakened bones, and discolored teeth. As the perpetual unscientific environmentalist campaigns against trace amounts of synthetic chemicals show, the left is now the political tendency most desperately afraid of impurifying our precious bodily fluids.

In May 2000, the ideological environmentalist opposition to fluoridation got a further boost with the formation of the Fluoride Action Network (FAN). FAN founders include such alarmist luminaries as the late David Brower (former Sierra Club executive director and founder of Friends of the Earth), Teddy Goldsmith (founding editor of The Ecologist), Gar Smith (Earth Island Institute), and Terri Swearingen (Ohio anti-incineration activist).

But you needn't be either a capitalist or a communist dupe to think public fluoridation is a good idea. In the early 20th century, a dentist named Frederick McKay opened his practice in Colorado Springs. McKay noted that the teeth of many locals had brownish discolorations. He also noted that they had relatively few decayed teeth. Researching the matter for decades, McKay eventually concluded that fluorine compounds in the water supply were the cause of both the discoloration and the cavity prevention.

Trendley Dean, a U.S. Public Health Service dental officer, heard of McKay's research and designed studies in 1936 which showed that fluoride concentrations of around one part per million prevented tooth decay while not discoloring teeth. On December 14, 1945, Grand Rapids, Mich., became the first city in which sodium fluoride was added to its water supply as a way to prevent dental caries.

Today, some 62 percent of Americans served by public water systems drink fluoridated water. Studies show that fluoridation reduces the amount of cavities that children get by up to 60 percent. (It reduces adult cavity levels by 35 percent.) One study estimated that fluoridation reduced U.S. dental care expenditures by $39 billion between 1979 and 1989.

A new report issued on November 30 by the Task Force on Community Preventive Services for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), after reviewing peer-reviewed scientific evidence from around the world, once again "strongly recommended community water fluoridation." An earlier CDC report from 1999 noted that "opponents of water fluoridation have claimed it increased the risk for cancer, Down syndrome, heart disease, osteoporosis and bone fracture, acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, low intelligence, Alzheimer disease, allergic reactions, and other health conditions."

But that CDC report dismissed such claims: "The safety and effectiveness of water fluoridation have been re-evaluated frequently, and no credible evidence supports an association between fluoridation and any of these conditions." It is true that a very small number of people exposed to fluorides in drinking water will develop fluorosis, a cosmetic condition in which generally small chalky white spots appear on sufferers' teeth.

Since 1950, much to the chagrin of Palmer and Alpher, the American Dental Association "has continuously and unreservedly endorsed the optimal fluoridation of community water supplies as a safe and effective public health measure for the prevention of dental decay." The CDC and ADA are not alone in their enthusiasm for fluoridation–nearly 100 national and international professional medical societies and research organizations also endorse community water fluoridation, including the Institute of Medicine, the World Health Organization, the National Academy of Sciences, and the American Medical Association.

On balance the scientific evidence seems to indicate that fluoridation is a safe and effective way to prevent tooth decay. Of course, that doesn't mean that future studies will not identify problems–research is always subject to revision. However it is highly likely that, after 50 years of use by millions of people, any truly major health problems resulting from fluoridation would already have made themselves evident.

Of course, as the debates over issues like vaccination and environmental policy have shown, scientific evidence doesn't sway committed ideologues. The technophobes and reactionaries of the left and the right will continue campaigning against fluoridation until the sun burns out. So if you don't want fluoride in your water supplies, then by all means join the motley ranks of anti-fluoridationist figures like Jack D. Ripper, Ralph Nader, and the Sierra Club. You are free to ignore the scientific evidence of fluoridation's benefits and vote "no" when it comes up as a referendum in your community. May you enjoy paying more for your dental bills and possibly condemning your children to false teeth in their old age.

NEXT: Slippery Standards

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  1. At the recent CPAC conference, Birch Society President John McManus and William Jasper, the Senior Editor of the Birch Society magazine, The New American, spoke with Rachel Maddow of MSNBC when she dropped by their CPAC booth. Video of Maddow at JBS-CPAC booth:

    Since December 2009, Rachel has devoted three segments of her TV program to the Birch Society. During two of those segments, Rachel discussed the Birch Society position on the fluoridation of water supplies. The Birch Society subsequently dismissed her comments as a typical “left-wing smear” of the JBS.

    It is totally understandable that JBS President John McManus now wants to revise history and pretend that the Birch Society opposed fluoridation only because it amounted to “mass medication” — but that is not historically accurate. [See McManus’s comments to Rachel Maddow beginning at 4:35 of the CPAC video link above].

    What McManus does not address is why the JBS linked water fluoridation to communists and communism in the March 1960 issue of the JBS Bulletin.

    Why, for example, did that issue of the Bulletin warn readers about “Communists [who] have been able to beguile a sufficiently large enough, powerful enough, and determined enough clique into supporting fluoridation” — as if fluoridation of water had no legitimate basis in medical research nor any support by principled dentists but, instead, was simply part of a conspiratorial plot?

    Why, also, did Robert Welch state in the JBS Bulletin of December 1959 (page eight) that he was sending to all JBS chapter leaders sufficient copies of the September 28, 1959 issue of the Dan Smoot Report newsletter so that every JBS member could read Smoot’s anti-fluoridation argument which also referred to the “communist plot” aspect of water fluoridation?

    Furthermore, let’s consider two letters that were written by self-identified dentists to J. Edgar Hoover.

    The first letter to Hoover is dated April 4, 1960:

    “I have been delegated to ask your opinion on several matters. Since we are resolved to fight the conspiracy in the most effective manner, it is essential that we KNOW we are supporting a cause which has the best interests of the United States as its prime objective. We want to know, therefore, if you would endorse the John Birch Society…Recently, American Opinion, edited and published by Mr. Welch, has claimed strongly that fluoridation of municipal water supplies was promoted by and is a part of the communist conspiracy. Since I am a dentist and have supported fluoridation strongly, I find this almost inconceivable. Can you throw some light on this matter please?” [FBI HQ file 62-104401, serial #75; 4/4/60 incoming inquiry to J. Edgar Hoover.]

    The second letter is dated December 19, 1960:

    “Several months ago we became acquainted with the John Birch Society. We were very impressed with the Blue Book of the Society and wish to become active against Communism through its membership. However, Mr. Welch strongly recommends The Dan Smoot Report and we would like to know more about Mr. Smoot…As dentists we are strong proponents of fluoridation of water supplies…Consequently, we were more than amazed when someone told us that Communists were for fluoridation while anti-communists were against it. To prove his point the man brought us the September 28, 1959 Dan Smoot Report, “Facts on Fluoridation” as well as articles from The American Mercury magazine.” [FBI HQ 62-104401, #558; 12/19/60 inquiry to Hoover]

    It should be noted that the “fluoridation-as-communist-plot” argument presented by Smoot and the Birch Society was also promoted by many other individuals and organizations — particularly as a consequence of an “affidavit” by Kenneth Goff.

    In March 1963, a Congressman contacted the FBI to inquire into Goff’s assertion that fluoridation of water supplies was part of a communist plot. A Bureau memo discussing the matter states:

    “Our files do not indicate evidence substantiating the charges that fluoridation is part of a communist plot?Of course, the fluoridation controversy has been nationwide and the communist element has often been injected into it principally by right wing extremists.” [FBI HQ file 62-80382, serial #149, page 2; 3/13/63 memo from D.C. Morrell to Mr. DeLoach].

    The same serial states:
    “Bufiles indicate that in 1952 Goff was considered to be a borderline psychopathic case.”

    Ogden Reid was a former Editor of the New York Herald Tribune. In 1957, Reid asked one of his columnists, former FBI informant Herbert Philbrick of I Led Three Lives fame, to comment upon the idea that Communists advocated or were linked to fluoridation of water.

    Here is the pertinent text of Philbrick’s 6/24/57 memo in reply to Ogden Reid [FBI HQ file 62-80382, serial #53; 6/24/57 memo from Herb Philbrick to O.R. Reid, captioned “O. K. Goff statement re. Fluoridation”].

    “(1) I probably saw and read as much Communist propaganda as anyone from the years 1940 to 1949 and never at any time recall seeing anything about Fluoridation. And in all the hundreds of cell meetings I attended, the subject was never broached.

    (2) We have conducted an intense research at my office into the subject of Fluoridation in response to many inquiries. We have not been able to find any ties with Communism, despite much rumor and speculation. Indeed, the Party does not seem to have taken any great interest in the subject. In the past two years, the subject has been mentioned only twice in the Daily Worker.

    (3) So far as we can determine, the issue of Fluoridation is a very recent development…

    (4) From a number of persons I have met from Communist imprisonment, in contacts with refugees from the captive nations, and in many conversations and interviews with members of NTS, there has never been mentioned the use of Sodium Fluoride in Soviet prison camps as a tranquilizer.”

  2. This is an interesting argument, especially the fluoridation. I had no idea this was even going on.

  3. Still not sure why we can’t apply it topically to our teeth instead of being forced to drink it in the public water supply. It seems like libertarians would object to the latter fact. No?

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