A letter to the editor of the local newspaper caught my attention this week. Written by one, “RG”, astrologer, clairvoyant, feng shui aficionado and crop-circle observer, the letter warned of the dangers of adding fluoride to our drinking supply. And, there is indisputable scientific evidence to prove his claim, RG informed us; a recent Harvard study ‘concluded’ that high amounts of fluoride in the water impacts negatively on children’s IQs.
“Where do Australian dental groups and politicians get their science?” wrote this clearly exasperated defender of public health.
I happened to mention this letter to my cousin, Doug, when he was visiting last week. Doug and I appear to be genetically predisposed to eye-rolling at hippies quoting scientific papers. There also appears to be some genetic predisposition for writing scathing letters to the editor. But, not fond of the idea of having our house picketed by a heard of disgruntled hippies, bearing rainbow placards and brandishing twirling fire batons, I have studiously avoided responding to RG’s letters to the editor for 11 long years. I will admit though, to taking some delight in consigning them to the fire.
“I think I have to answer this one,” I said, feeling rather like the proverbial overloaded dromedary.
The week moved on and I never did get around to checking out this Harvard paper which, apparently, proved just how dangerous fluoride is for children’s neurological development. Then, I received an email from Doug. RG’s letter had been gnawing at him too and he’d taken pen to paper – or fingers to keyboard – in reply.
“RG’s” complaints about the lack of scientific process being applied in the issue of fluoride in our water supplies would be laughable if it was not so sad.
As anyone with even a basic understanding of science and scientific process would understand, when quoting from scientific research it is imperative to name the author, the journal the study was published in and a date. Correct referencing of articles is necessary so people can check facts and make sure the information being quoted is not being taken out of context or manipulated from the author’s intention.
A scientific research paper usually covers many thousands of words and can rarely be accurately condensed into one sentence.
If “RG” understood anything about science, he would know this. Alas, I fear he may be one of those classic examples of a little education being a dangerous thing.
“RG” seems to be someone who does not bother to check the original source documents or take the time to understand them in all their complexity. Instead, relying on simplistic summaries from those with a very unscientific bias, he makes wild and dangerous claims which don’t accord with scientific consensus on this issue.
I am no expert in this field. But I know that the experts in chemistry and public health I have spoken to are alarmed at the rising number of misinformed people who are using twisted pseudo-science to remove an important tool for improving public health.
Well, I couldn’t let myself be outdone, could I? Suitably inspired, I tracked down the study referred to by “RG” and, as expected, it didn’t quite say what he said it did. My letter to the editor follows:
In “Fluoride Flaws”, Range News, 30 May, local conspiracy theorist, “RG” sneers, “Where do Australian dental groups and politicians get their science?”
The answer, “RG”, is that most of them actually read the academic literature rather than regurgitating propaganda from dubious online sources.
I took the time to track down and read the Harvard University analysis referred to by RG. It is “Developmental Fluoride Neurotoxicity: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis” by Anna L Choi et al, published in Environmental Health Perspectives in October 2012. The full text is available online.
“RG” falsely states that Ms Choi’s study ‘concludes’ that children who live in areas with highly fluoridated water have ‘significantly lower’ IQ scores.
In fact, Choi’s study found a ‘possible’ correlation between a slightly reduced (although possibly significant) IQ level and exposure to exceptionally high concentrations of fluoride in drinking water – in China. But, Ms Choi also concedes that, despite her subjects’ exposure to very high levels of fluoride, “the estimated decrease in average IQ scores” is sufficiently small that it “may be within the measurement of error for IQ testing.”
So, a possible correlation warranting further research, but not at all proven. Certainly not ‘concluded’ as RG suggests.
Funny that RG neglects to mention that Ms Choi’s analysis is based on data from rural and regional areas of China.
Why China? It’s simple really. Ms Choi explains that the levels of fluoride exposure needed for her study “are difficult to find in many industrialized countries.”
There’s a good reason for that. As in many industrialized nations, the level of fluoride in Australia’s town water supplies is closely monitored and controlled within demonstrably safe limits. Australian children simply aren’t exposed to the ‘highly fluoridated water’ that features in Choi’s study – even when fluoride is added to the water supply.
Most of Australia’s natural water supplies are low in fluoride. Fluoride is added to bring our water up to relatively normal, safe levels of around .7-1mg per litre; a concentration which is low, safe and protects against dental decay.
Conversely, Choi’s study focuses on regional and rural areas in China with unmonitored, uncontrolled, abnormally high rates of fluoride in water sources such as springs, wells and streams. It’s simply not comparable with the water supplied to Australian families.
Like many chemical substances, the toxicity of fluoride depends upon the dose. You can die from drinking too much water or inhaling too much oxygen, but I haven’t noticed Mr Giles writing to the Range News to suggest we should stop breathing and drinking! Just so, fluoride, a naturally occurring substance in drinking water, is certainly toxic in high concentrations but has been proven safe and beneficial in lower doses.
So let’s be clear. Ms Choi’s research on fluoride and IQ levels does not ‘conclude’ anything. Nor should her research raise any alarms for Australian parents whose children are not and will never be exposed to the unmonitored, high fluoride levels which exist in the wells, springs and streams of some regional areas of China.
RG should be more responsible when reporting on scientific studies. He should at least, read them. He has badly misrepresented this one.”
Like climate science deniers and anti-vaxxers, our friend, “RG”, has set himself up as the font of all knowledge on issues about which he knows fuck-all. One can only stand in amazement at the level of self-delusion required to imagine that his little bit google research provides him with the equivalent of a PhD in chemistry!
But google research does have its place. Indeed, a little bit of google research reveals that the key paragraph of RG’s letter to the editor was plagiarised, complete and unattributed, from an article by über woo-meister, Dr Joseph Mercola’s:
“A recently-published Harvard University meta-analysis funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has concluded that children who live in areas with highly fluoridated water have “significantly lower” IQ scores than those who live in low fluoride areas.”
If “RG” even bothered to read the study I’ll run down to Maleny, buy a hand-woven, organic hemp hat from the Co-op and consume it for my vegan, locally sourced, non-fluoridated dinner.
Sadly, the editor of our local rag didn’t see fit to publish our letters. OK, maybe they were just a tad ranty. But, hey – that’s why I have a blog.
I bet your local rag is based somewhere in Hamilton
No, it’s the Range News, up here in the Sunshine Coast hinterland.
Chrys, did the editor provide you with any justification for refusing to publish your response to RG’s letter?
No and I don’t blame the editor – they can’t publish every letter they receive and ours were rather long. I can blame him for publishing RG’s letter though. I think that was irresponsible when a little checking would have shown it was not only drivel but plagiarised.
Excellent blog Chrys.
wathc the council tribunal, you’ll find every argument ever made on the fluoride isue, will also take you many hours, but its both sides and a well run process. http://www.youtube.com/user/HamiltonCityCouncil/videos?view=0
Perhaps not entirely to the point byut I was suddenly reminded of:
I confess a pigeonhole starts to form
And is immediately filled with pigeon
I am perplexed why newspapers and online sources persist in publishing utter nonsense (like Online Opinion did in the last week or so, giving an anti-vaxxer space). They wouldn’t publish rants about Kennedy conspiracies or moon-landing hoaxes, so why this?
In some respects I agree, and the anti flurodation “lobby ” is not at all helped by the conspiracy style websites out there, they jump on the bandwagon because it’s such a polarised topic, however there is no harm in considering both sides of a story, after seeing respected local health professionals with good scientific basis argue for removing it , including my own doctor ! well that’s opened my eyes for sure. Seeing the media reaction and the DHB reaction is a little polar considering the facts and research sites.
There are no ‘both sides’ on fluoridation or vaccination. In the dosages recommended they are very safe. That is not to say that not one person will ever be adversely affected, but the rewards in terms of public health far outweigh the infinitesimally small risks. And, if society was really concerned about risking ‘just one child’s life’ then we wouldn’t be letting children ride in cars,would we?
James remember doctors are also prone to bring mislead like anyone. GPs are not scientists or researchers. They have a very broad general knowledge of human health. The experts in this field state fluoride in drinking water at the levels we have are not toxic. In fact fluoride is naturally found in water supplies. In some places the levels reach toxic levels and are reduced to levels similar to ours. Tell your doctor to do some research.
last word was *cited* not sites 🙂
Northern NSW has a huge anti fluoride brigade as well. Those that have stood up for water fluoridation have been threatened, Dentists have had their surgery’s vandalised. It is appalling & concerning to see how nutters like the anti-vax/fluoride groups can be believed over proven research. Fear tactic’s does it everytime.
Certainly can’t condone that sort of carry on. I think that’s what happens when uneducated people are told “what” to believe rather than listen to and consider the multiple facets of such arguments, however don’t put everybody with an opinion in one box, that’s how it all starts 🙂
Unfortunately James, it is not just the “uneducated” who believe this ‘misinformation’ – to put it politely. As a Midwife/Family Health Nurse my core business is Breastfeeding promotion, Vaccination, healthy diets & Dental health as well as many other areas. I could not begin to count how many times I have tried to explain to parents how Homeopathic ‘vaccines’ do not work (we even have their Governing bodies in Australia & the U.K. recommend vaccination), or that fluoride in the drinking water will not harm their baby/child, only to have them turn around & say ” I am a scientist, I have a degree in xxxx & the research tells me that……..! One of the highest non-vaccinating areas in NSW is the well off, well educated people of the Nth Shore of Sydney. So no, we cannot put people in boxes
Sarndra – that’s appalling.I can’t believe dentists’ surgeries have been vandalised. There are so many woo woo believers in the Northern Rivers, I know but most of them are not vandals.
And I agree that it is merely ‘uneducated’ people who diss sciences and public health measures. People usually believe what suits them emotionally rather than what is provable and rarely change their minds even when presented with evidence. Sad!
Gees I love your staunchness on these issues – whether pseudo science quacks, religious zealots or sundry bigots, your incisive analyses always hit the mark! We need a crack squad of Chryses to keep these buggers honest on a grander scale ;-). I always enjoy reading your blogs and appreciate the care and attention you take to call out examples of poor thinking whenever you come upon it. Keep up the good work!
Hear, hear Duke
Thanks Duke. The problem is, if we’re not to fall into the same trap as these woo-sters it takes a lot of time to read and fully undertand these complex academic papers. It takes 5 minutes to cut and paste from an article by Joseph Mercola but it took me 8 hours of solid research and reading (I think I got to bed around 2am) to be sure that I had my facts straight enough, and my sources reliable enough to respond. In terms of time alone, it’s an unwinnable war – but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.
Our friend Michael at Skeptical Raptor has also posted about the Harvard Study. Great post:
Thanks Hank, I’ve linked to the blog post under Related Articles. I wish I’d found it when I was researching I could have just cut and pasted without doing my own research oh, wait …. maybe not. 😛
I think a paper that posts misinformation MUST print correcting responses. Chrys, if you think its a bit ranty please rewrite it and submit with a cover letter explaining why its important.
Dan, I’ve devoted over 10 hours to it now. I think I’ve done my bit.
Sent from my iPhone
I once made a dismissive remark about fluoridisation conspiracy theorists as a YouTube comment and it generated months of hate mail. I had to block over a dozen accounts and make an email filter especially to counter it. I’ve never seen such a response to any other issue.
Chrys – it is worth realising that the problem with adding fluoride to the reticulated water supply has to do with the change in legislation (in the 60s anyway in WA) that meant that any further additive, there had been (I think) 17 additives already added to the water supply to kill pathogens, keep the lines clear of debris from the chemical reactions relating to delivering clean water to the populace. Public Health did this.
Then legislation was passed that meant that any further additive had to come before the Legislative Assembly for debate. Politicians are notoriously led by the nose ring of the electorate (with little real information on which to base proper decision making). So there was a problem, lobby groups, nutters et al.
I was involved in the process of introducing fluoride to the Perth Metropolitan water supply in 1966. I was instrumental in delivering research from Europe and (incidentally) from Cue, WA that had naturally occurring fluoride in its water supply and no dental caries in its population,
It eventuated that the Legislative Assembly passed the legislation needed for the Public Health Dept. to instigate the controlled addition of fluoride to the water supply. I have yet to meet a dentist against fluoride. Dentists prefer to fix structural dental problems, not fill holes in teeth.
I notice that Mike W says he received hate mail. I remember receiving death threats, religious nutters telling me I was going to hell and more broadly based nutters wanting to kill me.
Not pleasant. However, there is less dental caries and that is a good thing.
Fluoride deniers are like anti-vaxxers and anti-this-and-thaters. I don’t give a damn anymore, but in 1966 I was 23 with a baby and a husband and didn’t need the vitriolic phone calls, letters and cars outside our house. Yes, Mike, it does go on for months. Awful.
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