We may have an emerging example of junk science driving public policy. I read that the Lawrence City Commission has (at the urging of outgoing commissioner Hugh Carter) directed City Auditor Michael Eglinski to prepare a report summarizing the latest scientific research on whether adding fluoride to drinking water is beneficial.
Why? Well, apparently two people Carter knows “argued fluoridation has a long list of potential side effects, including staining of the teeth, reduced intelligence, cancer and thyroid disease.” This sounds terrible. It probably contaminates our precious bodily fluids as well. Is any information available? Will an auditor (not a scientist) be reviewing the research and reporting on it? Would we ask our auto mechanic how to raise carrots?
So, already we see some typical junk science — news media effects. We see a story which makes people think that there is a controversy, so there is one. The story contains no representation of the issues as seen by science — but even if it did, it would give a kind of false “fair and balanced” atmosphere to the story — as if it contained the arguments for a round Earth versus a flat Earth in a fair and balanced manner.
Fifteen seconds with a search engine turns up the results from the National Research Council. These experts serve without pay to advise the federal government and the general public on scientific and technological issues that affect people’s lives. The NRC has looked at fluoridation of drinking water many times since 1951, with the most recent review of research in 2006. Essentially, there is no evidence for any negative effects at the level of fluoride ADDED to drinking water (0.7 to 1.2 mg/L) in most towns, even in combination with that in toothpaste, etc.
There ARE negative effects from larger amounts of fluoride, which often occur naturally, coming in from soil or bedrock. The NRC reports and those of the EPA contain warnings about these. Anti-fluoridation activists will typically quote these (the most common being tooth stains) without explaining that these are in reports about natural fluoride in water, which can be much, much greater. The NRC is clear, after a great deal of work by a dozen leading scientists looking at the work of thousands of others, that the small amounts added by municipalities are beneficial to teeth. According to the Lawrence city report for 2011, the fluoride levels in our water ranged from 0.2 to 0.97.
Fluoridation is endorsed by academies of dentists, pediatricians and others. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control lists water fluoridation as one of the “ten greatest public health achievements of the 20th century.” All the information of the consensus of science is available out there. So why are we spending public time and money on it? Why did we have a public debate about teaching children standard science, such as evolution? Why do we have a problem with trying to curb carbon emissions, which might help prevent Kansas from becoming a desert? Why do purposefully misinformed anti-vaccine activists get so much airtime? How many children die because their parents are afraid to get them vaccinated?
In order to clear these things up, we as a society need to fund research and then pay attention to the results. Science has been characterized as a way to keep you from fooling yourself, and that’s not a bad definition.