Pouring cold water on anti-fluoridation arguments

Opinion: ‘To be fair, none of these more colourful arguments seem to have been levelled in Dublin City Council’

‘The libertarian argument against fluoridation is worth entertaining.’ Photograph: Getty Images

‘The libertarian argument against fluoridation is worth entertaining.’ Photograph: Getty Images

 

Let’s launch a thought experiment. Imagine that Dublin City councillors had just passed a motion declaring that tobacco was no longer a health hazard. If this were the case then media would be ablaze with talk about Big Tobacco’s malign tentacles and the scientific ignorance of our elected representatives. Obviously, nothing so preposterous has transpired. The councillors merely voted against the addition of fluoride to the water supply.

The comparison is, however, not so ludicrous as it first seems. The US Centre for Disease Control has identified the fluoridation of water as the ninth most significant medical achievement of the 20th century. The body placed it one spot above the recognition of tobacco as a menace to wellbeing. As Dr David Robert Grimes, a regular contributor to this paper, has reported, a recent report by Public Health England considered the supposed dangers of fluoridation – hip fractures, kidney stones, cancers – and concluded that there is “no evidence of harm to health in fluoridated areas”. All but the most deranged of anti-fluoridation activists admit that ingestion of the chemical causes a reduction in dental caries and a decline in related conditions.

The libertarian argument against fluoridation is worth entertaining. You don’t need to be part of a Montana-based militia to wonder whether it is the government’s business to administer preventative medication without the citizen’s specific consent. Still, most of us without stockpiles of shotgun shells in the cellar accept that, as part of the civic contract, we cede some freedoms to the state in exchange for its occasional protection. If you brush four times a day, apply dental floss regularly and swill high-powered mouthwash you have the right to pout and snort. But the benefits to those who aren’t quite so rigorous outweigh any supposed traces of creeping totalitarianism.

At the risk of contravening a codicil to Godwin’s Law (concerning the notion that any habit of Hitler’s, from dog fancying to vegetarianism, offers evidence of comparable wickedness), we will glibly point out that anti-fluoridation campaigners have been caught up in some of the most lunatic conspiracies of the 20th century.

In a work of paranoid convolution that seems to spring straight from Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, one stubborn cadre of campaigners argues that IG Farben, the defunct German chemical company allied to the Nazis, devised fluoridation as way of suppressing occupied populations during the second World War.

Another more complex loop argues that the evil chemical corporations are dumping dangerous waste in the water while using the money accrued from flogging that waste to the government as a way of financing any resulting lawsuits. (I would say: “You couldn’t make this up.” But somebody clearly has.)

Gibberish for all. While the left blamed sinister corporations, the right inveigled anti-fluoridation theories into the campaign against communism. During the 1950s, milder tub-thumpers suggested that the measures were part of campaign to institute “socialised medicine”. Elsewhere, it was argued that the Soviet Union was using fluoride to poison our children’s minds. The dangerously paranoid Gen Jack D Ripper, played by the immortal Sterling Hayden, summoned the argument up succinctly in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove. “Have you ever seen a Commie drink a glass of water?” he asks Group-Captain Mandrake. “Fluoridation is the most monstrously conceived and dangerous communist plot we have ever had to face.”

To be fair, none of these more colourful arguments seem to have been levelled in Dublin City Council. Councillor Anthony Connaghan of Sinn Féin – a party that resists no opportunity for carnival populism – proposed the motion “in the interest of safety and erring on the side of safety”. It matters not that there is no substantive evidence of any negative side-effects and that the benefits of fluoridation are not in question. It requires only the suggestion that some old lady once wore a pointy hat to trigger a witch hunt. Dr Paddy Smyth of Fine Gael described the debate as “an affront to science”.

The vote will have no immediate effect on the public policy. But the paranoids and the rabble rousers are gaining strength. Resist.

Anthem anathema

Thanks must go out to the BBC. As the cold weather finally sets in, the Corporation warms us up by launching a nauseating massed singalong to Brian Wilson’s God Only Knows that will trigger burning fury in all but the most tolerant listener. People you like (Stevie Wonder), people you can’t stand (Jamie Cullum) and people who only seem to exist as guests on Never Mind the Buzzcocks (Paloma Faith) warble the haunting melody into banality while its composer looks on in medicated bemusement. The arrangement will do well enough. We approve of that fact that proceeds go to charity. But the transformation of such a famously spooky song into a gang-show anthem is unforgivable.

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