If you learned that nuclear scientists and industrial polluters conspired to put poison into, say, jellybeans, you'd probably stop eating jellybeans -- or at least cut back. But what if you found out that the titans of toxicity had been dumping an insidious byproduct into your water, for decades? Would you stop drinking it, showering in it, cooking with it and washing your dishes using it? That's tough to do, but that's the dilemma the reader faces by the end of Christopher Bryson's The Fluoride Deception.
Fluoride is a term for any number of compounds including fluorine, an element so volatile that it will burn through virtually anything. Even when combined with other elements that partly sate its appetite, fluorine can rip apart big, ungainly molecules like human DNA, Bryson writes.
As early as 1935, scientists found odd constellations of illness among workers in fluoride-intensive industries, like aluminum smelting. Fluoride-exposed workers suffered from nervous tics, gastric pains, vomiting, bone spurs and asthma, according to Bryson. People and animals living downwind from the smelters were also falling ill. Some scientists blamed fluoride.
Industry had a big stake in proving those scientists wrong. It faced lawsuits from crippled workers and factory neighbors, and feared potential regulation, according to Bryson. Perhaps not coincidentally, in 1935 a Pittsburgh-based research organization called the Mellon Institute launched a study on reducing tooth decay. Two years later its scientists would announce that the magic bullet was fluoride. Among the Mellon Institute's member organizations were Pittsburgh-based Alcoa, U.S. Steel and Westinghouse Electric.
Then, during World War II, Manhattan Project scientists found that to make atomic bombs they needed to use -- and then dispose of -- massive quantities of fluoride. Suddenly both industry and government had fluoride problems, and they wouldn't get any easier during the postwar boom and the nuclear arms race. Fortunately, a handful of scientists were beginning to argue that fluoride in toothpaste and water would help strengthen children's teeth. Chief among them was Harold Hodge, a top government scientist perhaps best known for injecting uranium and plutonium into unsuspecting hospital patients. In 1944, the upstate New York town of Newburgh agreed to be the test case for the fluoridation of public water. Hodge led the experiment.
There are too many damning memos, secret experiments, ostracized whistleblowers and, yes, dead bodies to list here. Suffice it to say that Bryson makes a compelling case that water fluoridation is a scam foisted on us by government and business, aimed at making us smile at the name of what is really a serious pollutant. By the time the book is over, it's hard not to look upon your government, and your tap, with deep suspicion. (The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority fluoridates its water, as do many -- but not all -- municipal water suppliers.)
What Bryson doesn't do is show us conclusively that the amount of fluoride ingested by the average tap-water drinker is harmful. In experiments, beagles that breathed fluoride developed emphysema. Young rats that drank heavily fluoridated water became hyperactive or retarded. As for humans, there's no conclusive data -- a fact that seems scandalous in its own right.
If Bryson doesn't quite prove that fluoride is harming us, he makes a very compelling case that our government and big business couldn't care less. That's probably no surprise to many readers, but the boxes of documents unearthed by the award-winning TV, radio and print reporter paint a harrowing picture of utter scorn for the public's well-being. They also show how the nation's research institutions have become puppets of big business and its protectors in government, making it nearly impossible for even well-meaning scientists to speak the truth and be heard.
Bryson argues that it's not even clear that fluoridated water prevents cavities. It does, apparently, fight lawsuits. When Bryson tells the stories of fluoride-pollution victims who've gone to court, only to be defeated by high-powered corporate attorneys who've swayed juries by swilling tap water and waving around toothpaste tubes, our rage is compounded by a sense of helplessness.
Bryson doesn't do much to alleviate that feeling of hopelessness. Though his book is obviously anti-fluoride, he doesn't give the anti-fluoridation movement much ink, suggest that people lobby their water supplier, or even indicate whether screw-on faucet filters take the fluoride out. Maybe that's not the journalist's role, but it leaves the reader feeling thirsty for answers -- and for spring water.