Tapping into fury over fluoride

Sat June 30, 2001

As new fears over fluoride surface, GEMMA O'DOHERTY revisits the story that earned her last year's Campaigning Journalist award:

The chairman of Kildare County Council has never given a second thought to the amount of water he drinks. He takes the same amount a day as the average Irish person: a glass or two from the tap, a few mugs of tea, and a drop in the odd whiskey at night. He certainly never thought it might be doing him any harm. Until now.

Last Friday, Rainsfort Hendy received the results of a urine test he had done to measure the level of fluoride in his body. With seven other councillors from Kildare, he had agreed to take the test after a recent lecture to the council on water fluoridation by a British expert. The results found that six of them had fluoride levels high enough to cause medical concern. Chairman Hendy's sample showed one of the highest levels, 5.4 milligrams of fluoride, almost double the recommended safe level of 3mg a day.

"I was very surprised. I had never really thought about it before but from now on I will be watching my water intake as will the other councillors who took part. This is a national issue now. What we are really concerned about is the damage it could be doing to the whole population and that there is no choice but to take fluoride because it's in our water by law. We want this issue looked at urgently."

With a crippled health service to worry about, Minister for Health Michael Martin must privately hope the nagging issue of water fluoridation will go away, but pressure continues to mount on the Government to bring the controversial practice to an end.

A concerted countrywide campaign is now under way demanding a stop to the mass medication of the public with fluoride in the water supply. Eight local authorities - Dublin Corporation, Sligo, Donegal, Leitrim, Longford, Kildare, Clare and Kerry, have publicly stated their opposition to
fluoridation or asked the Government that they be allowed decide for themselves if they want it in their area. Under the 1960 Health Act, they are prevented from doing this.

Opposition politicians are making similar requests. Earlier this year, Fine Gael announced its intention to end water fluoridation for good if the party comes to power at the next general election.

To add to the minister's grief, the Forum on Fluoridation which he set up in May 2000 to investigate claims of adverse health effects has been rubbished by the anti-fluoridation lobby who claim the bulk of its members are in favour of the practice. They fear it is a foregone conclusion, that when it concludes in September, the forum will recommend the continuation
of fluoridation.

Today, Ireland stands alone in Europe as the only country to insist under law that drinking water contain fluoride. Seventy-three per cent of Irish drinking water contains the drug which is added to prevent dental decay. Most other countries have rejected the practice because it is considered ineffective and unsafe. Opponents of water fluoridation, which include most
western governments and the largest union of scientists in the American Environmental Protection Agency, claim it is linked to cancer, irritable bowel syndrome, hip fractures and thyroid disorders.

The latest study on the subject, published in the March edition of the American medical journal NeuroToxicity, found that fluoride exposure may produce lower IQ levels in children. The research, which was carried out by a university in New Hampshire, looked at the blood levels of 150,000 children under seven and found that those living in fluoridated areas were at greater risk of having lead in their blood higher than the acceptable level. The absorption of lead in the body can affect intelligence and cognitive abilities, and a high presence of the substance can lead to
Attention Deficit Disorder and violent behaviour.

Although it is widely believed that the fluoride added to drinking water is a natural mineral, the agent used in Irish water is a highly corrosive acid which is a waste component of the Dutch and Finnish fertiliser industries. Scientifically known as hydrofluosilicic acid, it is much more toxic than
the Sodium Fluoride used in toothpaste and contains trace amounts of lead, arsenic, chromium and uranium. When it enters the human body, about half is excreted but the rest is left to accumulate in the bones, glands and other tissues.

Although the Government prescribes fluoride as a medicinal product to prevent tooth decay, the product used is not registered as a drug with the Irish Medicines Board, is unlicensed and has never been proven safe or effective for use on humans. And every day, the Department of Health pumps 2,000 gallons of the product into the country's reservoirs.

Water fluoridation was introduced in Ireland in the 1960s before the advent of fluoridated toothpaste. Since then, vast improvements have been made in dental hygiene, mostly as a result of greater oral health awareness and education. However, the Department of Health still considers it necessary to dose tap water with fluoride on the grounds that people from lower
socio-economic backgrounds cannot care for their teeth sufficiently without State intervention.

But several dentists who work in under-privileged parts of the country are beginning to question State policy on fluoridation and believe that the benefits to teeth have been very limited.

Dr Nuala O'Neill has been a Public Dental Officer with the Eastern Regional Health Authority for 22 years. She retired from her job in April. Also a qualified barrister, most of her career as a dentist was spent in the Dublin suburb of Finglas.

"People like myself working at the pit-face are still finding rampant tooth decay so you have to ask if fluoride is the wonder drug it's supposed to be, why isn't it doing its job? We are 6th in the WHO league of tooth quality behind four countries that don't fluoridate and the UK, which only
fluoridates a very small part of its water supply. If fluoridation was so great, we would be in first place. The reason oral health has improved in Ireland is down to better education and oral hygiene but in under-privileged areas this is not yet on the agenda."

Like growing numbers of dentists, Dr O'Neill is deeply disturbed that the whole country is being medicated against their will with a potent drug and feels it is a violation of the primary principle of medical ethics, first do no harm, as well as the principle of informed consent.

"Under EU legislation, everyone has a right to bodily integrity. Fluoride is a chemical with detrimental medical effects and what the Government is doing is clearly unethical. If you follow their logic, why aren't doctors putting aspirin in the water for possible cardiac problems down the line, or oncologists putting selenium in the water to prevent cancer. Irish people should be given a choice in this matter. Instead they are being treated like children. Older people with no teeth at all are having to take fluoride."

Under the 1997 Council of Europe Convention of Human Rights and Biomedicine, a government is forbidden from giving a person any medicine or drug without their consent. Although 23 European countries have signed this convention, the Irish Government has failed to do so.

Former advocate of fluoridation, Navan-based dentist Dr Don MacAuley, uncovered details of the substance used to fluoridate Irish water when he investigated the issue using the Freedom of Information Act. He had become worried about the number of child patients coming to his surgery with a condition called skeletal fluorosis, a brown staining or mottling of the teeth which is the first sign that too much fluoride is entering the system.

Since he made his inquiries he has had a dramatic change of mind about fluoridation and now heads the Irish Fluoride Free Water campaign.

"Every day, I see children in my surgery damaged by fluoride. They do not smile, they are teased at school, they are traumatised by having rotten teeth. Irish people are being bombarded with fluoride, in their water, toothpaste, even their beer, and we just don't know what it is doing to our overall health," he said.

Dentists estimate that fluorosis occurs on two or more teeth in 30pc of children in areas where the water is fluoridated and some are asking if too much fluoride can cause so much damage to the teeth, the only visible part of the skeleton, what could it be doing to the rest of the body?

There are also concerns that bottle-fed babies in Ireland are receiving unsafe levels of the drug in their feed. Using the British Medical Association's safety limits, Irish new-borns who eat formula made with tap water are receiving three times the safe dose of fluoride and three-month-olds nearly six times the safe limit. International dental experts now warn against giving fluoridated water to infants, including senior consultants in the Canadian Dental Association who advise that children under three should never be given it and that it should never be used to make up baby formula. The Irish Food Safety Authority is investigating this matter and will publish its findings by the end of the summer.

In the meantime, the Department of Health is determined to proceed with its policy of water fluoridation insisting that the risk to human health is non-existent.