I know some people who are concerned about the presence of fluoride in drinking water. They say fluoride-containing chemicals are toxic and damage human health, and, when administered to the water supply, are the cause of illness and disease. Some people I know go as far as identifying water fluoridation as a means of social control. They suggest that Ireland’s policy of putting fluoride in the water makes the population docile. I know other people who think these people are idiots. What is the truth of the matter?
The other day, the Irish Times published an interview with singer Damien Dempsey, by Tony Clayton-Lea. The interview revealed the singer was considering writing a song about water fluoridation. “I’m not going to pay the water charges unless they take the fluoride out, because it’s poisoning us, I believe”, he is quoted as saying.
Last Tuesday, the Irish Examiner reported that Bantry had acquired status as ‘Ireland’s first fluoride-free town’, ‘after six businesses installed filtration systems they say will give their customers the choice to consume food and drinks prepared with fluoride-free water’. ‘Organico Café, Organico Shop, Trawl and Trend cafe and restaurant, The Fish Kitchen restaurant, The Mariner bar, and Wokabout, which makes ready-to-go Thai meals, each spent up to €700 on the installation of a reverse osmosis water filtration systems.’ The status was conferred by the Fluoride Free Towns movement, which is ‘working to reverse Ireland’s mandatory policy of water fluoridation’.
The Irish Examiner reports that ‘Ireland in the only country in the EU and one of only two in the world which implements a national mandatory public water fluoridation policy.’
Ireland’s apparently peculiar status in this respect appears to give people some cause for concern, and such statements, taken on their own, can hit an ominous note. It strikes you as if there is something inherently authoritarian and suspect about Ireland’s policy: what is it about Ireland’s ruling powers that gives them cause them to make water fluoridation mandatory?
However, there is widespread water fluoridation in the US. 67.1% of the US population receives fluoridated water, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There is no ‘national mandatory’ policy: the policies are implemented at state level.
So, for example, the states of California, Texas, Florida, New York and Ohio all have widespread water fluoridation programmes, and they all have populations more than twice as big as Ireland. More than 210 million people in the US receive fluoridated water.
That in itself doesn’t make water fluoridation right, of course, but it shows that the ‘national mandatory’ element to Ireland’s policy is not as significant as it might appear at first blush. What is more, the term ‘mandatory’ makes it seem as though the population were being forced into consuming fluoridated water against its will. But in reality, the ‘mandatory’ nature of Ireland’s policy is the fact it was enacted by Ireland’s democratically elected government. There is a mandate for it: from the people of Ireland. The people of Ireland could, with sufficient political will, revoke that mandate. It has the legislatory instruments to do so. That’s the theory anyway.
Do the 210 million people in the US who consume fluoridated water reap any benefit from such policies? To be honest, it’s hard to tell. A US Surgeon General in 2004 reported that water fluoridation is the ‘most cost-effective, equitable and safe means to provide protection from tooth decay in a community’. But demonstrating the effectiveness over time of such protection could be difficult. There are a lot more factors in the prevalence of tooth decay than water fluoridation. Poorer people tend to have poorer diets, for example. So if dietary habits in a population worsened over time, and tooth decay increased as a consequence, it could be very hard to demonstrate how water fluoridation had served to mitigate the extent of tooth decay. My own sense of things, for what it’s worth, is that whilst it is no guarantee against tooth decay, there is no evidence that water fluoridation, safely administered, has any harmful effects on public health, unless you were to argue that the fact of water fluoridation in itself produced paranoia about water fluoridation.
I’ve come across all kind of horrifying stories about what happens to animals when subjected to massive doses of fluoride, and how fluoride is a toxic substance and so on (I am referring to the more reasoned contributions here, and not crazed stories about how Hitler used fluoride to keep Nazi subjects docile). Well yes, but so is paracetamol. Take enough paracetamol and your liver will pack in. Does this mean paracetamol is bad? Not when administered under appropriate dosage it isn’t. Why is fluoride -assuming it helps prevent tooth decay- any different?
Obviously, if you have a crowd of cowboys in charge of the water supply and there are no regulatory checks or secure facilities and anyone can just drive in off the street and dump a big lorry-load of fluoride into the water supply whenever they felt like it, this would be a very bad thing. Fortunately enough, this doesn’t happen, Much. *cackles maniacally*
In the film Dr Strangelove, General Jack D. Ripper says that “Fluoridation is the most monstrously conceived and dangerous communist plot we have ever had to face”, and “a foreign substance .. introduced into our precious bodily fluids without the knowledge of the individual. Certainly without any choice. That’s the way your hard-core Commie works.” But there are real-life opponents of water fluoridation in the United States, on the far right.
The John Birch Society, for example, is at pains to distance itself from the Dr Strangelove caricature, but is opposed to water fluoridation on the following grounds: ‘While the JBS doesn’t agree with water fluoridation because it is a form of government mass medication of citizens in violation of their individual right to choose which medicines they ingest, it was never opposed as a mind-control plot. If citizens want to add fluoride to their diet or daily routine, there are plentiful opportunities for them to do so. It’s a choice they should make, not their local government.’
The same rhetoric used by the John Birch Society -a programme of mass medication that overrides any consideration of individual choice- can be found in an Irish context. For example, singer Paddy Casey, in a statement to Hot Press, recently denounced ‘what is essentially an experiment in mass medication‘. Labour chief whip Emmet Stagg declared at a party meeting in November that “the time has run out for this form of mass medication”. Another Labour Party delegate, Sinead Seery from the Coolock, Dublin North-East branch said “this isn’t about scaremongering, it’s about choice”.
Eric Hobsbawm once referred to Thatcherism as “petty bourgeois anarchism”. It’s not a bad description for the Fluoride Free Towns initiative mentioned above, either. What makes the towns ‘free’ of fluoride -and the malign interfering hand of the State- is private initiative, the purchase and sale of private products. In the absence of the ability to exercise decisive control over the water supply, what happens instead is -pardon the awkward phrase- the commodification of the absence of fluoride. If you can’t afford to get takeaway from the Wokabout -bad luck!- it’s fluoride-boiled packet noodles for you – the Big Fluoride Free Society will be built without you.
This might sound exotic, but it isn’t really. Consider the education system in Ireland, with its fee-paying schools. Last night I spoke with a man who had attended a fee-paying school, paid for by the farm labourer wages of his father. Then there is the health system, with its public-private split. People tell similar epic tales of their own individual heroism in scrabbling together enough in order to keep a private health insurance policy. Then there is the exaltation of the voluntary spirit, also beloved of the John Birch Society. The flight into private, individualised solutions to perceived and imagined failures of public institutions is a long established tradition in Ireland. Perhaps someday we’ll all be installing our own water treatment facilities, so that the only piss and shit that has been in the water we’re drinking has been our own.
A recurring theme in opposition to water fluoridation is the fact that the rest of Europe doesn’t do it. As I point out above, the rest of Europe mightn’t do it, but the US does. Similarly, countries like the UK, France, Germany and Sweden all had long periods of ample welfare state provision, periods of left-wing government, a left wing press. Ireland has not. Is water fluoridation an effective tool, then, contra General Jack D. Ripper, in preventing communism?
With that said, suspicion of public institutions in Ireland –particularly those dealing with public health and welfare, has a solid basis in fact: symphisiotomy, caesarean hysterectomies, baby trafficking, child slavery, the Hepatitis C crisis, to name a few issues.
It isn’t hard to see how a policy of water fluoridation could be held up as an example of an equitable public health policy by self-serving authorities who were indifferent to graver matters of concern regarding public health, such as the effect on life expectancy arising from cuts to social welfare spending, or the absence of a decent public health system.
More generally, Ireland suffers from a lack of proper local democratic institutions and its highly centralised State institutions tend to act with high-handed dismissals of popular concerns.
If anti-fluoride sentiment gains popular traction, it is on account of a general lack of democratic accountability and an absence of readily accessible and intelligible public information, and, as outlined above, in keeping with a tradition of ‘petit bourgeois anarchism’ that views the State as the eternal oppressor and the private enterprise of the sovereign consumer as the germ of the solution.
Damien Dempsey, among others, doesn’t like fluoride in his water supply, but he’s fine with paying water charges. That is, his proposed gesture contains no opposition to the commodification of water, or the fact that water is already paid for by citizens out of general taxation.
If there was properly accountable public control and ownership over the water supply, there could be proper scientific studies of the health effects of substances in the water supply. But by saying, I’ll pay water charges if this condition is met, he -and others- are saying that the de facto privatisation of the water supply with Irish Water, and the wholesale robbery of the population as a consequence, are both OK, provided there’s no fluoride in the water. As a form of political campaigning, it’s hard to conceive of a more ingenious way of maintaining the status quo.
Judged on this basis, fluoride paranoia is unquestionably far more harmful than fluoride in the water supply. It corrodes people’s heads.