(This story appeared in the August edition of Ireland's Dental Magazine
Journalist Gerry Byrne explains why he is taking a stand against the anti-fluoridation lobby ...After Balbriggan Town Council passed an anti-fluoridation motion, the motion’s proposer told me she only acted because a constituent lobbied her. Another, confusing it with chlorine, said there was too much of it in the water and “you can smell it in the swimming pool”. And another said he heard it caused cancer.
Councillors I spoke to had no real grasp of why it is put in drinking water supplies in the first place, or that it had accomplished nothing short of a dental health miracle.
Yet, despite its proven benefits, and the lack of any evidence that it causes ill-health, Ireland is on the cusp of a serious public and political revolt against fluoridation. Cork County Councillors recently yielded to vociferous lobbying and called for its removal from the county water supply. Similar motions are expected nationwide in the coming months.
Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Sinn Féin and the Green Party have all at some time passed motions against fluoridation yet, last time I looked, most dentists favoured it, and no medical authorities opposed it.
This debate is largely being driven by belief, not biology. Its gurus are often to be found on the fringes of the alternative lifestyle movement where homeopathic remedies are favoured over a trip to the doctor, or the dentist for that matter. I have even unearthed anti-vaccination campaigners lurking in the deeper recesses of this campaign.
But the real shock is that scientifically illiterate Irish politicians are swallowing hook, line and sinker the false, easily disprovable health claims of people who, in a heartbeat, might send us spinning back to the medical dark ages.
Bantry woman Aisling Fitzgibbon, a.k.a. The Girl against Fluoride, is a poster girl for anti-fluoridationists in more senses of the word than one: she has been known to strip off to her undies for photographers to boost her campaign. She is a qualified ‘Angel Therapist’ in addition to offering some other unusual alternative health therapies which I cannot even attempt to explain.
Likewise, Declan Waugh, from Bandon, is the poster boy for the anti-fluoridationists, not just in Ireland, but worldwide. His modus operandi as a self-styled ‘fluoride scientist and humanitarian’ is the almost weekly ‘discovery’ of diseases he says are caused or exacerbated by fluoridation (the latest is spina bifida). His methodology is to trawl through disease statistics until he unearths an ailment with a higher incidence in the Republic of Ireland (where all public water is fluoridated) than in Northern Ireland (where it is not) then to triumphantly announce yet another health ‘scandal’. I took the trouble to double-check some of his outlandish claims with medical specialists and disease groups, all of whom vigorously denied fluoride plays any role in the diseases in which they specialise.
Waugh receives added status by virtue of having a Bachelor of Science degree from Sligo IT, and the fact that his written pronouncements on fluoridation often cite mainstream scientific sources. I checked many of these and perhaps the kindest thing I can say about his work is that it is very sloppy. ‘Key findings’ he presents as coming directly from a major US review study into fluoridation do not exist in the form – or the context – in which he quotes them. He cites a major US review of an international thyroid cancer epidemic in support of his thesis that fluoridation is the cause. But on reading the US review, I discovered that it makes no mention whatsoever of fluoridation, instead blaming the epidemic on a now-banned flameprooofing chemical. Waugh omits to mention this inconvenient little fact.
By wrapping himself in a scientific mantle, Waugh might seem an anachronism in a movement which is by and large anti-science. Most anti-fluoridationists are pro-science only when it suits them. They draw especially upon a pantheon of maverick scientists and doctors in the USA who are household names to those of us who study their methods. Indeed, in the alternative health community, discredited scientists appear to have added value as people who have been punished by ‘vested interests’ for their ‘courageous whistleblowing’ and the name of Andrew Wakefield (discredited for falsely claiming the MMR Vaccine caused autism) often surfaces.
When they are not misrepresenting science, anti-fluoridationists happily make things up. On their websites (there is an anti-fluoridation Facebook page for almost every town in Ireland) they trot out aphorisms which beggar belief.
Did you know, for example, that fluoride is a waste by-product of the nuclear industry which puts it in our water because it is too poisonous to dump in landfill?
That the Nazis used it to kill Jews? That governments pump it, and other things, out of the jet engines of airliners to subdue rebellious populations? That the EU has banned it and the Irish Government continues to break international law by continuing to use it? That the Irish Government has breached a UN charter by force-medicating the population? That fluoridation is controlled by the Illuminati? And that many dentists say fluoridation causes, not prevents, dental caries?
None of these things are even remotely true but that doesn’t stop their endless and shameful regurgitation by the anti-fluoridation lobby.
They create such a constant, endless noise about the ‘evils’ of fluoridation that it is probably unsurprising that some politicians are lured over to their side of the fence. One Cork councillor I interviewed said he wasn’t convinced by lobbyists’ claims but admitted he voted against fluoridation ‘in case some of them were true’.
The zeal of the anti-fluoride lobby is almost messianic. Indeed, they parallel many of the belief structures of a religious cult which treats critics as mortal enemies. When writer and Oxford scientist David Robert Grimes panned anti-fluoridationists in a Newstalk radio interview, Declan Waugh wrote to his employer accusing him of “scientific misconduct and medical negligence” while Aisling Fitzgibbon accused him being sponsored by big pharma.
Politicians like Dublin councillor Padraig McLoughlin, and Bray’s Ronan McManus, who have taken the time and trouble to investigate and repudiate the claims of anti-fluoridationists are routinely excoriated and insulted for their integrity.
From often bitter personal experience, I have learned there is little to be achieved in tackling them on their Facebook pages where they are very often simply preaching to the already converted. Anyway, corrective postings by critics are often soon removed. Medical authorities say they don’t have the resources to be constantly issuing corrections to their misleading statements. As one medical consultant said: “I can’t spend my life picking fights with bloggers.”
I established a local Facebook page (Balbriggan Fluoride Facts) which highlights misleading or incorrect claims and attempts to correct them, but it is a thankless chore; no sooner is a falsehood exposed and corrected than another takes its place in true whackamole fashion.
In any event, much of what is done by myself and other, even more vocal critics of the anti-fluoridationists, is invisible to the people who really matter in this debate: the politicians. Indeed, several politicians have pointed me to what one described as the deafening silence on fluoridation coming from the Department of Health, the medical profession, and most important of all, dentists.
The Government appointed Expert Body on Fluorides and Health has issued several useful analyses and trenchantly critiqued Declan Waugh’s anti-fluoridation document but this work has been almost subliminal as far as the public and politicians are concerned.
I don’t believe the dental profession quite realises the severity of the current threat to fluoridation. Unless there is a renewed and forceful public statement by dentists of fluoridation’s safety and efficacy, I am convinced its days as a public health measure are numbered. Pronouncements by the profession’s governing body are valuable but an even more useful project I believe is for dentists individually to write to their local councillors, and to TDs from all parties stating where they stand on fluoridation. Otherwise the only voices being heard by politicians are the strident negative claims of the anti-fluoridationists saying the government is deliberately poisoning the people.
About the authorScience and aviation journalist Gerry Byrne has criticised anti-fluoridationists in The Sunday Times and debated with them on RTE radio and other radio stations. He blogs at gerbyrne.blogspot.ie
Balbriggan Fluoride Facts (since renamed as The Fluoridation of Irish Water is Harmless) can be accessed at www.facebook.com/BalbrigganFluorideFacts