Hard to Swallow


 A Salt Lake Tribune Editorial.  March 5, 2002.


Public health officials are fighting two anti-fluoridation bills in the Utah Legislature with a familiar two-pronged argument: Weird Utahns have been bucking a trend with their dogged opposition to water fluoridation, and scientists are unanimously behind it. It is the same misinformation that helped proponents win referendums in Davis and Salt Lake counties in November 2000.

The truth is voters around the country have been rejecting fluoridation regularly for the past decade. Ten U.S. towns -- including Flagstaff, Ariz., and Modesto, Calif. -- defeated fluoridation measures handily last year while only Yuma, Ariz., and Utah's Centerville passed them. Even the City Council of progressive Colorado Springs, Colo., recently spurned fluoridation, while the national Sierra Club is urging communities to seek "safer alternatives." Utahns didn't start bucking a trend until they voted for fluoridation.

An even greater falsehood is that scientists are united behind fluoridation. That notion has always been proponents' most intimidating weapon, and a federal health official predictably unsheathed it again last week while speaking with the Utah media. William Maas, the government's director of oral health, said he couldn't understand "why people don't trust the recommendations from esteemed scientific [sources]." What he and other fluoridation proponents know well but never acknowledge is that the many scientists who question fluoridation are every bit as "esteemed" as the ones who don't.

Dr. Maas, meet Dr. Arvid Carlsson of Sweden. Carlsson won the Nobel Prize in medicine in 2000, then joined a list of a dozen other past Nobel-winning scientists by advising the world not to fluoridate. In an interview last year with the Kamloops (British Columbia) Daily News -- verified by The Tribune via e-mail -- he said fluoridation isn't worth the risks. "Side-effects cannot be excluded and, thus, some people might only have negative effects without any benefit," Carlsson explained. "In Sweden, water fluoridation, to my knowledge, is no longer advocated by anybody."

It has few advocates in the rest of Europe, either. Dutch officials responded to a Tribune inquiry last year by forwarding a Ministry of Health study, which noted that "a number of questions concerning human health and the environment in connection with fluoride have not and can hardly be clarified." The Netherlands today doesn't even recommend fluoride tablets for consumption, and about 98 percent of Europe has rejected fluoridation.

How can this be when the U.S. Public Health Service is such a relentless proponent? It's possible that America knows something that Europe doesn't -- a premise not supported by comparisons of cavity rates -- or it could just be simple politics. European health organizations didn't stick their necks out by aggressively promoting fluoridation early on, so they risked no loss of credibility by backing away when questions arose about its safety and effectiveness.

In any event, the "esteemed" scientific community that pushes fluoridation is far smaller than it would have Utahns believe. From a global standpoint, it appears as odd as it has always accused Utahns of looking.


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