Let's not tap into baseless fears about fluoridationby Gerry Byrne
(published The Sunday Times (Ireland) page 15, March 9, 2014)
After some relatives were diagnosed with a rare hereditary thyroid cancer, tests showed I also carried the gene for this deadly condition. Waiting for fate to come knocking was not an option, so I had my thyroid gland surgically removed. But was I wasting my time? If environmental scientist Declan Waugh is to be believed, maybe all I needed to do was to stop drinking tap water.
Waugh claims the fluoride being added to Irish drinking water in order to reduce dental decay contributes not just to thyroid cancer, but dozens of other conditions ranging from Down’s Syndrome to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). “Fluoridation of drinking water has significantly increased the dietary fluoride exposure of the entire population in Ireland to unsafe levels that have contributed directly and indirectly to numerous adverse health effects on the population,” he says.
It should be pointed out that Mr Waugh is not a biochemist nor an epidemiologist; he has a B.Sc. in environmental science from Sligo Regional Technical College. Prior to establishing EnviroManagement Services, an environmental consultancy, he dealt with mining wastewater, and the erection of wind turbines. In 2012, the minister for the environment appointed him to the board of the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland.
In a 166-page document, entitled Public Health Investigation of Epidemiological data on Disease and Mortality in Ireland related to Water Fluoridation and Fluoride Exposure (available at enviro.ie), Waugh claims a study by the American government has proved fluoride causes several conditions and diseases. He says his theories are backed up by the higher incidence of many illnesses in the fluoridated Republic of Ireland, compared to Northern Ireland, where water is not fluoridated.
When I inspected his prime source, a 2006 review of fluoridation conducted on behalf of the US Environmental Protection Agency, I concluded that, far from condemning fluoridation as an unmitigated source of medical calamity, it gave fluoride a clean bill of health. The review found no evidence fluoridation contributed to many conditions. An exception was fluorosis, a well-known side efffect of excessive flouridation causing tooth discolouration. As a precaution, it advocated fluoridation at a reduced concentration.
So what about all the persuasive quotes Waugh has taken from the US study and reproduced in support of his thesis? I could not find some of them in the US study, while it appears to me others are taken out of context. The effect is to portray what I would regard as a largely favourable study as an epistle of doom.
What of the supposed disparity in disease rates between the republic, and the non-fluoridated North of Ireland? Time prevented me from checking all Waugh’s claims but sufficient sources - ranging from patient-support groups to medical specialists - suggest he is wrong. Disease rates are broadly similar.
Take fatalities linked to SIDS [Sudden Infant Death Syndrome] which Waugh says are 300% higher in the fluoridated republic. The rate is actually 18% higher in non-fluoridated Northern Ireland, according to figures supplied by Dr Cliodhna McGarvey, a medical researcher of the syndrome. Fluoridation is not the cause of SIDS, she believes.
Another source Waugh cites is a report of research into thyroid cancer rates worldwide led by scientists in Yale and the US National Institutes of Health (NIH). He writes that Swedish rates of thyroid cancer declined by 18% once it ceased fluoridating its water supply. Yet the same report says female thyroid cancers rose 81% in the same period in neighbouring Denmark, where water has never been fluoridated. The Yale and NIH researchers never once mentioned fluoride. Instead they mention, as a possible cause, polybrominated diphenyl ethers, once commonly used as a chemical flame retardent in furnishings, and which are now banned in Europe and America. Waugh makes no mention of them.
There are valid reasons why fluoridation might be challenged (the ethics of mass-medication of a population being one) but in my view Waugh’s study does not serve any useful purpose, save to instil unnecessary fear and suspicion in gullible people. As one woman who read part of Waugh’s study said to me, “If you believed fluoride caused SIDS, how could you live with the guilt if you fed a baby with formula made from tap water, and it died in its sleep?”
I don’t regret having my thyroid removed because, if avoiding tap water was all I did to avoid contracting an inevitable genetic cancer, I’d probably be dead.
Gerry Byrne is a science and aviation writer, and author of Flight 427: Anatomy of an Air Disaster (Copernicus, New York) about the longest-running air crash investigation in US history. He blogs at http://gerbyrne.blogspot.ie.