The nuclear energy establishment wants to cash in on South Africa's controversial chemical "tooth medicine" plan.

Sunday, June 30, 2002

Tony Carnie

The Pelindaba nuclear/chemical complex - set up by the apartheid government in the 1960s to produce atomic bombs and enriched uranium fuel - is set to become the major supplier of hundreds of tons of fluoride which will be added to drinking water throughout the country from next year.

In terms of health department regulations, water suppliers like Umgeni Water will be compelled to add fluoride to tap water in towns and cities nationwide, in a bid to reduce tooth decay.

In its concentrated form, fluoride is highly toxic. Yet it has been added in diluted form to the drinking water of many Americans for fifty years, to harden tooth enamel.

However, most European countries do not allow fluoridation of water, and many dentists and scientists around the world are back-tracking on their earlier support of fluoridation because of mounting evidence that it may do more harm than good to human health.

In America, most of the fluoride added artificially to water supplies originates from chimney stacks, as a waste by-product of the fertilizer industry.

This week, the health department declined to reveal where South Africa's fluoride would come from. Oral health director Dr Johan Smit argued that the quality of the flouride was more important than its origin.

When pressed by The Tribune, he disclosed that most chemicals would most likely come from Pelchem, which is a subsidiary of the Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa (NECSA), located in the Pelindaba nuclear complex west of Pretoria.

Though aluminium smelting and fertilizer companies in South Africa produce large quantities of fluoride as a waste-product, Pelchem is believed to be the only local company able to supply enough fluoride for the nationwide water-dosing campaign.

The company's ability to provide this highly-corrosive chemical stems from its long history of producing and handling the vast quantities of hyrdro-fluoric acid needed for the enrichment of uranium nuclear fuel.

Fluoride, in acid form, was a raw material which helped Armscor and the old Atomic Energy Corporation produce highly-enriched uranium for its top-secret atomic weapon programme. Between 1977 and 1989, at least six "gun-type" nuclear devices were built, and an underground explosion test site was prepared in the Kalahari desert.

However, large quantities of fluorine products from the Pelchem facility were also sold to local and foreign industries - for use in glass-etching, insecticides or leather preservatives.

Pelchem commercial manager Eddie Valkenbergh, was at pains this week to stress that fluoride produced at Pelindaba was a raw material, rather than a radioactive by-product of nuclear fuel. It was produced from locally-mined fluorspar, mixed with sulphuric acid.

To get additives for drinking water, the Pelchem acid stocks would be treated with silica sand to produce fluorosilicic acid - which would be added to water at a diluted concentration of 0,7 parts per million.

Pelchem stands to boost annual revenue of about R130 million by at least 10% if it corners the local water fluoridation market.

Valkenbergh said his company's fluoride would meet American water works standards, and was a "purer" form of the chemical than fertilizer or aluminium industry supplies.

But Dr Hardy Limeback, former president of the Canadian Association for Dental Research, and head of preventive dentistry at the Univeristy of Toronto, says the Pelchem supplies could not be regarded as pharmaceutical grade medicine.

Limeback, one of several former fluoride advocates who have changed their minds, has written to President Mbeki urging him to set up a fluoridation panel to review whether or not South Africans are especially susceptible to the harmful effects of fluoride.

Limeback - who apologized to his campus and students some years ago for his previous support of fluoride - says fluoride is a known poison if ingested over a long period of time, even in small daily doses.

He said research by University of Stellenbosch researchers (Loue AJ and Grobler SR (2002, J Dent Res) reported that in some regions already containing fluoride naturally, dental decay rates increased with increasing dental fluorosis.