Lots of people -- and by that I mean Steve Blow -- base their faith in fluoridated drinking water on what they believe to be the preponderance of scientific opinion as expressed by dentists. I refer to Blow's recent column in The Dallas Morning News.
The implicit assertion -- made explicit by Blow -- is that people who oppose fluoride in drinking water have pitted themselves against dentists and science. Then we get into a debate about what science, whose science, and so on.
Right off the bat, I want to do something here that the lawyers call stipulate or agree in advance. I want to stipulate that the vast preponderance of dentists believe fluoridation is a good thing and also that the bulk of published science supports them. But then I want to offer three caveats. Science changes. Dentists are not scientists. Sometimes scientists lie.
Medical practitioners in general are medical practitioners, not scientists. It may not always have been their fault historically that hucksters have exploited their good name in society to sell poison to people, but those instances are an important part of history.
In the 1920s and '30s, American Tobacco and Phillip Morris were competing to see which company could muster the more resounding endorsement from doctors, giving us ad campaigns like, "20,679 physicians say Luckies are less irritating" and "More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette." One way the tobacco giants persuaded doctors to lend their imprimatur was by sponsoring so-called "scientific research" carried out by their own paid scientists -- a model that continues to be a favorite of the toxin industry today.
Conflict of interest and lobbying pressure from industry remain a serious problem at the highest levels of scientific research, as illustrated by the debate over chromium in water. In that dispute the American Chemistry Council, the lobbying arm of Big Chem, has been successful in preventing the EPA from releasing what the EPA's own scientists have called clear evidence that cancer-causing levels of chromium in American drinking water are an ongoing serious threat.
Where are doctors in the debate on human exposure to toxins? Mostly nowhere. In spite of recent research showing alarmingly high levels of dangerous toxins in the blood of pregnant women, a study last year at the University of California-San Francisco found only one in five doctors counsel pregnant women about the dangers of environmental chemical exposure. For a bracing look at the advice they should be giving, take a look at this brochure which warns pregnant women, among other things, to take off their shoes before entering their homes.
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It would be unfair to single out doctors and dentists as the only people in our society with a penchant for cluelessness where chemical toxins are concerned. One of the better known instances of very bad information purveyed to the public on toxins was a New York Times story in 1991 in which the Times reporter told readers that scientists had concluded dioxins, one of the worst modern poisons ever invented, were no big deal and that slurping down a bunch of them was no more dangerous than getting a bad sunburn.
Eventually the truth came out -- the reporter was an idiot and had completely misconstrued an entire scientific conference -- but not before his story had been republished all over the world, because it was a New York Times story, and, you know, The New York Times cannot be wrong.
Last year The Houston Chronicle published a story showing that many doctors in Texas take significant cash payments from the drug companies whose products they then endorse and prescribe. The problem of conflict of interest extends to the very highest levels of medical/scientific regulation where even the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's own experts have cried foul over the influence of money on their own agency's so-called scientific findings.
So, back to the top: I stipulated, remember, that most dentists support fluoridation in drinking water and that the preponderance of the science so far supports them. I don't think there's any dispute about that. But I don't think that resolves the larger question: who do you trust?