What was the last thing you did right before climbing into bed? If you’re like me, you brushed your teeth, just like your mama always told you. And then if you’re still like me, you play a few games on your phone. And then maybe check Facebook one last time. And then start completely freaking out because one of my friends commented on my post about food dyes that I also need to check my kids’ toothpaste because they often contain dye ohandbytheway fluoride is a neurotoxin. Goodnight! Sleep tight! Try not to think about how, at least according to some people, that little nightly ritual of scrubbing your teeth with toxic, neon-gel paste and then rinsing it off with toxin-laced city water is lulling you to sleep with dreams of cancerous tumors dancing through your head. Or if not death, at the very least that fluoride bath will make you stupider (ha!), to the tune of about seven IQ points.
According to a 2012 Harvard meta-analysis of 50 years’ worth of fluoridation studies, kids with more exposure to fluoride were dumber than kids with less exposure – about seven IQ points worth of dumb. While the study has since been refuted by many – the main criticism being that the studies looked at children in China and India who were drinking water contaminated with fluoride from pesticides thereby exposing them to much higher levels and a different type of the stuff than what we have in our drinking water and is therefore not an apt comparison – there remains a general distrust of the compound. (Note: Fluoride is not flourine – the squirrely gas also known as the ninth element. Fluoride is fluorine combined with something else, most often with sodium.) So much so that Portland, Oregon, voted in 2013 to stop fluoridating the city’s water supply- the first major city to do so since the US began force-fluoridating people in the 50’s.
But what’s seven IQ points in the face of one of the greatest public health coups in American history? The official stance of the Environmental Protection Agency, the American Dental Association and the American Cancer Society is that not only is fluoridated water safe but it’s reduced cavities – particularly in vulnerable children – significantly and has thereby improved the public health. They reassure – in so many articles that my I began to worry that reading press releases might be a neurotoxin – that fluoride in water and toothpaste doesn’t cause cancer, bone loss or Adam Sandler movies.
So are seven IQ points worth healthier teeth? I tried Googling it but alas no one could tell me what difference seven IQ points would make in my life. Seriously, if it would mean that I would no longer get lost driving out of my neighborhood then I’ll take spacial acuity over no cavities any day! But if it just means the distance between Perez Hilton and The Daily Mail then perhaps we’d all be better off with chompers that can take us through old age. Plus, if you feel like playing IQ math, you can add seven points to your IQ by playing an instrument, four points if your mom breast-fed you and – thank your lucky salts – 15 IQ points by eating iodized salt! (Should I point out here that women lose an average of 10 IQ points when we have kids?)
So who’s right? The same big government who told us that fat-free milk was the answer to our diet woes or the crunchy all-natural folks who wash their hair with bar soap?
Optimistic view: All the people, especially the poor ones without regular access to dental care, have 68% fewer cavities! We’re literally giving people health care through their water line!
Cynical view: The government is drugging us all into complacent stupidity while placating us with marginally whiter smiles. Shiny objects for the win. Again.
Either way fluoride has had a very fraught history. Which, for some reason I can’t explain, I’ve never known about before! I don’t know if I just tuned out the controversy like I do with pretty much any conversation that starts with you can’t be too safe! or if I heard about it and it didn’t sink in but apparently this is one of those health things that is a Really Big Deal. Growing up, I remember the fluoride cart at my school. Every week, at the same time, a nurse would wheel a dolly filled with trays with little cups of bright pink liquid that all of us kids were then instructed to swish around our mouths for 30 seconds – she timed us on her stopwatch! – and then spit back into the cup and return it to the cart.
This impressed me for two reasons: First, I hated the smell and mouthfeel of the fluoride wash so so much and second, Paul, the kid who sat next to me was forbidden from participating in the fluoride ritual because he had a note. This both made me jealous and kind of repulsed me, as I imagined his teeth rotting and falling out of his head one by one. Although Paul may have won that round because I actually ended up with fluoridosis – streaks and brown spots on the teeth from, oh yes, too much fluoride in my youth. I discovered this in my 20’s when I went to my dentist to try professionally whitening my teeth that are the precise size and shade of corn niblets, only to be told that no product on the market could fix my teeth. And now I mostly just smile with my lips closed. Sigh.
I’ve always been obedient. Oh sure I pretended to be a rebel for a few years in my teens – demonstrated by doing idiotic things like riding motorcycles with no helmet and making out with boys I didn’t like at all – but deep down I like rules and even more I like following rules, especially ones back by science. So things like “brush your teeth twice a day” and “drink fluoridated water” became like gospel to me. I did them and I never questioned them. Up until today.
Now I have so many questions: how much fluoride are we really absorbing through our mouth when we brush and spit? What type of fluoride is being added to my water and does it really matter? (Some is derived from industrial pesticide waste while others are salts.) How much is too much? Why have my kids never been delivered pink cups on a metal dolly? There is a lot of research on this subject. Lots and LOTS. And I feel like I should cite more of it here. But for every US study that says fluoride is fab, there’s a European one that says fluoride is the devil and there’s a reason none of them use it. Back and forth, back and forth. I’ve been reading about it all weekend and I still can’t come to a clear consensus. is there anyone in this fight that is actually unbiased? ANYONE? BUELLER?!?
My main concern, after reading everything the Google gods have to offer on the subject (which is both tremendous and dispiriting), is the connection between fluoridation and thyroid problems. At this point, we felt compelled to investigate further. According to two doctors who wrote a book about thyroid problems, “After reviewing hundreds of articles and books, it became clear that, regardless of any other benefits and side effects, fluoride could indeed be considered a “hormone disruptor.” These are a class of chemicals from many unrelated sources, that have the unintended consequence of altering the proper function of important hormones in the body, such as thyroid.”
The doctors added, “Contradicting the hoped-for scenario is research going back half a century. For instance, we came across a 1958 study by Galletti and Joyet, published in the prestigious Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism. The paper was titled, “Effect of Fluorine on Thyroidal Iodine Metabolism and Hyperthyroidism.” These scientists showed that fluoride in the range of 2-5 mg. per day (what people now ingest in a fluoridated area) was enough to slow down thyroid function.”
I’ve long had a hinky thyroid and now I’m wondering if fluoridation plays a part in that?
And yet today I drank my many glasses of tap water and brushed my teeth with fluoride toothpaste (oh and I use the kind with the extra extra fluoride in it to help with my teeth sensitivity and recession) – but I did it with a great sense of unease. The toothpaste would be relatively easy to fix – Tom’s of Maine makes a popular paste with no fluoride or other additives – but the tap water? According to most sources, the only way to get fluoride out is reverse osmosis, a pricey process that I can’t afford. Or I could buy special reverse-osmosis bottled drinking water I guess.
What do you think about fluoride – public health miracle or menace? Do you try to avoid it or do you think it’s generally safe at the levels being used in most places? What kind of toothpaste do you use?? Anyone want to tell me what they’d use 7 extra IQ points for??