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by Christopher Bryson
Seven Stories Press, 272 pp., $24.95

The Fluoride Deception

Ever wonder about fluoride? Most of us believe the substance is a harmless dental panacea found in toothpaste and fortified water. To industry, fluoride signifies something else entirely: Used to produce and refine aluminum, zinc, uranium, refrigerants, aerosol propellants, insecticides, fertilizers, waterproof coatings, lubricants, firefighting foams, and pharmaceuticals, this adaptable chemical has made fortunes for DuPont, Alcoa, General Motors, and other manufacturing giants. Fluoride has also been key to our nation's ascent to military dominance. Without fluoride, the mighty industry that built airplanes and munitions during two world wars would have been hobbled. Equally significant, without the innovative fluorine-based compounds concocted in corporate and academic research laboratories, the United States might not have been the first to build the atomic bomb.

But fluoride has another characteristic: It's poisonous to humans. Since the early 1930s, scientists have been aware that too much fluoride can wreak havoc on the human body. Overexposure has been linked to the thickening of bone to the point of spinal fusion, as well as to mouth, throat, and bone cancer; emphysema-like respiratory conditions; skin lesions; liver and kidney damage; neurological disorders; and a host of other ailments. Anyone who's read the warning label on a tube of toothpaste knows you shouldn't have too much of the stuff.

In The Fluoride Deception, journalist Christopher Bryson asserts that fluoride's use in dentistry is rooted in industrial and national security concerns. Bryson contends that Americans drink fluoridated water not because it was universally accepted as a cure for bad teeth, but rather because government and industry leaders wanted a benign use for fluoride waste. (Approximately 90 percent of the fluoride that goes into our drinking water is a waste product of the phosphate fertilizer industry.) He weaves together industry and government documents, many of which have never been made publicly available, to reveal a web of coercion and deceit meant to ensure that the use of fluoride would continue unfettered, despite the threat to public health.

Bryson is not the first to raise such allegations. The idea of mass medication through the kitchen faucet was mired in controversy from the very first drop, although today most dentists and public health officials attribute lingering fears about fluoride's safety to a lunatic fringe of conspiracy theorists.

But it's hard to dismiss Bryson's meticulously footnoted facts, verbatim excerpts from once-secret documents, and direct quotes from Edward L. Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud and the most influential public relations master of the twentieth century, who admitted to his role in engineering the push for nationwide fluoridation. Bryson visited Bernays at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1993, just one year before he died at the age of 103. Selling fluoride was nothing -- mere child's play, Bernays told Bryson. " 'You can get practically any idea accepted,' Bernays told me.... 'If doctors are in favor, the public is willing to accept it, because a doctor is an authority to most people, regardless of how much he knows, or doesn't know.' "

The book is filled with examples of collusion among government officials, industry bigwigs, and the dentistry establishment to suppress information on fluoride's toxic effects while bolstering scientific support for its use as a cavity cure-all.

One of Bryson's most startling illustrations of the complicity between industry and public health officials is the story of Charles Kettering, vice president and director of research at General Motors from 1920 to 1947. In 1928, under his leadership, scientists at GM patented Freon, the fluoride-based refrigerant. GM and DuPont together manufactured Freon and jointly reaped the benefits -- sales of Freon increased by a factor of 17 between 1931 and 1943, generating $35 million in gross revenues. But in 1935, a GM and DuPont toxicity study revealed that hydrofluoric acid, also known as hydrogen fluoride and a key component of Freon, was highly toxic no matter how small the exposure. Workers who breathed the gas suffered lung hemorrhaging and liver damage.

Six months after the study was complete, Kettering was named to the American Dental Association's (ADA) three-person advisory committee on research in dental caries, which published a compilation of research on tooth decay. The volume drew heavily on the work of fluoride promoters, and Kettering's financial interest in fluoride was never disclosed to the dentists who read the publication. Nor was the fact that he had donated his own money to support the ADA's activities. In 1950, the ADA and the federal Public Health Service -- then under the control of the ex-Alcoa lawyer Oscar Ewing -- worked together to usher in the age of artificial water fluoridation. And in turn, Ewing would rely upon the public relations wizardry of Bernays to make it all happen.

Bryson does not deny that small amounts of topical fluoride may indeed help prevent cavities. Ample research shows that to be the case. Fluoride incapacitates enzymes produced by bacteria that live in the mouth, preventing them from eating away at tooth enamel. But it is precisely that ability to block enzyme activity that allows fluoride to disrupt other bodily processes.

Bryson makes it quite clear, however, that dentists and public health officials are woefully uninformed about the history of a chemical on which they have relied for more than half a century. He also shows convincingly that we really have no idea how much fluoride we are exposed to through a combination of drinking water, toothpaste, crop irrigation, and various fluorine-based compounds that spew from industrial smokestacks -- although it's almost certainly too much, even according to the Environmental Protection Agency's weak guidelines.

Journalists and watchdog groups regularly raise hell about just the sort of industry corruption of public health policy described in The Fluoride Deception. We don't brand the watchdogs as conspiracy theorists; we thank them for doing their job. After reading Bryson's account of our national infatuation with fluoride, it's hard not to wonder how we could have ignored so serious an issue for so long.

Scientists are beginning to realize that the cumulative effect of small doses of fluoride may already be taking a toll on human health. Studies of the elderly indicate that long-term exposure correlates with increased hip fracture; not only does the United States have one of the highest rates of hip fracture in the world, but it also has the longest history of artificial water fluoridation. The rise in Alzheimer's disease may also be rooted in excessive fluoride consumption, as may the increasing incidence of neurological conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. One scientist told Bryson: "I think we are going to see a lot more neurological problems that currently have no answers." If that's true, Americans could be staring down the barrel of a very long shotgun. Conspiracy theory or not, we need to start asking more questions.
-- Laura Wright

For seals that make Antarctica their home, life is very unlike that of their zoo-bound relatives, who spend leisurely days munching hand-fed fish. Antarctic male seals like the one seen here guard their turf with ferocity and are often unwilling to share breathing holes in the ice, especially when a heavily guarded newborn pup is around. So divers, including photographer Norbert Wu, are wise to take care when plunging through air holes in the ice: Unless they move quickly they're likely to find an angry Weddell seal chomping on their flippers. The National Science Foundation granted Wu unprecedented access to the frigid undersea realm of the Antarctic, and he returned with a breathtaking assortment of photographs: eerie underwater ice falls, vibrant red starfish devouring a prickly sea urchin meal, gargantuan jellyfish with 30-foot-long tentacles, and penguins cavorting in their natural habitat. There's a particularly amusing shot of emperor penguins checking out Wu's helicopter, queued up as if waiting for a ride. These and other stunning images fill the 198 pages of Under Antarctic Ice: The Photographs of Norbert Wu, published this fall by the University of California Press ($39.95).

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OnEarth. Fall 2004
Copyright 2004 by the Natural Resources Defense Council