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.