This paper first appeared in the Autumn 2011 Issue of the 'Skeptical Adversaria' (the Newsletter of ASKE, the Association for Skeptical Enquiry), pp. 2-5. Some of the links may no longer work.
Recently there was a presentation on water fluoridation (or fluoridisation) at Sheffield Skeptics in the Pub by two dental students. The speakers were in favour of adding fluoride to the public water supply to assist in the prevention of tooth decay in the population. 'Fluoride' refers to ions of the element fluorine when one of its compounds, such as sodium fluoride, is dissolved in water. The fact that fluorine is a poisonous gas need cause no alarm (as it appears to do to some opponents of fluoridation): chlorine is also a poisonous gas but the food we eat contains sodium chloride and indeed most people add this to their food in the form of common salt. The fluoride compounds that are added to the water supply are usually sodium fluoride, fluorosilicic acid, or sodium fluorosilicate. Some water supplies already have quantities of naturally occurring fluoride, even to the extent that the concentration level needs reducing. Fluoride is also present in certain foods and drinks, most notably tea. In certain areas of the UK, as well as in parts of the USA and Europe, fluoride is already put into the water supply. For years it has been deliberately added to many toothpastes and it is possible to buy fluoridated salt. One established side effect of excess fluoride is dental fluorosis, which is associated with specks and stains on the tooth enamel, and in serious cases some structural damage.
The speakers at the above meeting did a good job presenting the case for and against fluoridation of the water supply but they were obviously in favour. It was evident from chatting to members of the audience beforehand that there were some who disapproved of the whole idea.
There are rational grounds for questioning whether fluoridation of the public water supply should be undertaken. There are concerns about freedom, choice and personal responsibility and the role of government. There are arguments about whether there aren't better ways to spend money improving the dental health of the populace. Although well-conducted investigations appear to indicate that there are no serious health hazards associated with the concentrations of fluoride that are used, a cautious, 'better safe than sorry' policy may be preferred. But there appears to be something else at work that seems to fall short of a reasonable and objective approach to deciding on how best to proceed.
It seems generally accepted that the presence of the minute traces of the fluoride compounds that are added to the water supply cannot be detected by someone drinking it because the colour, taste and odour of the water is not affected. Now, people are naturally very nervous about any suggestion that something as universal as the water we drink, or the air we breathe, is deliberately contaminated by something that is undetectable. Maybe it is partly to do with not feeling in control. Consider, for example, the people living a few streets from my house. Quite a number of them smoke or drink to excess; some ensure that their children are overfed and under-exercised; many drive huge, status-symbol cars that, more than most, pollute the atmosphere with chemicals; and many overexpose themselves to the sun's ultraviolet rays. They seem quite happy to do some or all of these things, which have been clearly demonstrated to cause ill-health; yet last year they were up in arms at the proposed siting of a mobile phone mast in their neighbour-hood, fearing that the radiation emitted would present a serious health hazard for their children, despite the paucity of evidence for this and the lack of a good rationale why it should be so. Maybe the people concerned feel that they can do something to control the previously mentioned health risks but they are powerless to do anything about something so pervasive, invisible and intangible as the radiation emitted from this 'unnatural' source that was going to be inflicted upon them.
Even so, we live in a free and democratic society and if, for any of the above reasons, enough people don't want something imposed on them, maybe that's sufficient reason not to go ahead.
When the speakers at our meeting had finished their presentation the first question came from one of those members who I had previously detected was more than a little antagonistic to water fluoridation. She asked the speakers about reports that Hitler and Stalin put fluoride in the water supply as a means of subduing the population. The speakers did not appear to be aware of this; I don't think many of us were either. I decided that the best way to find out more was through the internet and I did a Google search a few days after the meeting.
Nothing prepared me for what appeared on my laptop. Much of what comes up is in opposition to fluoridation, but the breadth and intensity of the hostility expressed strikes me as going way beyond what should be a reasonable and measured appraisal based on a careful consideration of reliable evidence. Over the 45 years that I have been aware of this topic I have always assumed that the principal motivation for fluoridation, whether it be sound or flawed, has been driven by well-meaning dentists and doctors who have only the welfare of the public at heart (and, indeed, who might lose business if their advice proved correct). But, according to some 'authorities', it is a vast conspiracy by politicians to drug the population into a state of docility and submission.
It seems that the inspiration for this, according to one Charles Eliott Perkins, came from pre-war Communist Russia. Perkins was an American biochemist and physiologist who, in 1952, wrote a book entitled The Truth about Water Fluoridation (note 1) in which he warns readers that putting sodium fluoride in the water supply will cause a disastrous catalogue of human suffering in the targeted population. However, although he acknowledges that support for the policy comes from well-meaning, though misguided, members of the medical and dental professions, the real motive is the desire of politicians to achieve something much more sinister. Of water fluoridation in the USA he writes:
It is a planned experiment in mass medication which is part of the technique of Communist philosophy to implant itself in America through mass control of the people by the State.
He goes on to say:
Mass medication, involving the fluoridation of the public water supply systems, has long been known as an important technique of the Communist philosophy of mass control.
The scheme of water fluoridation was taken to England by the English-born Russian Communist Kreminoff in 1935. Laski, believed to be the head of the English radical socialists at the time, mentioned it in an article he wrote for HARPER'S MAGAZINE that year. Shortly thereafter the English socialists, who had many sympathetic supporters and followers in high places in this country, introduced the fluoridation movement in the United States.
(Harold Laski [1893-1950] was a Marxist and Professor of Political Science at LSE and, in 1935, a member of the Socialist League, along with people such as Barbara Castle and Michael Foot. Having once left the Labour Party he later rejoined and was its chairman from 1945-6. I have been unable to find any reference to the person called Kreminoff; perhaps the name is misspelt.)
Perkins was writing at the time of the communist witch-hunting period when there was great paranoia in the USA about the idea that communist sympathisers had infiltrated government agencies (as well as the film industry). The city of Washington (population 802,178) had already had its water supply fluoridated, about which Perkins says:
So, 802,178 'sleeping dogs' in Washington, who are deprived of the right to vote, are lying and waiting for their health to be ruined and their children to have mottled and ugly teeth, while a small group of fanatical advocates of artificial water fluoridation, who at the moment have control of certain of our government agencies, proceed with their Communist experiment in mass medication on the unsuspecting and compliant people who have been lulled into sleep by their cleverly contrived propaganda.
Nowhere in Perkins's book does he mention the use of fluoridation by German Nazis. The source of this claim is a letter, much-quoted in the countless copy-and-paste anti-fluoridation web-sites, by Perkins to the Lee Foundation for Nutritional Research in Milwaukee, dated 2.10.54. (As far as I can tell, this letter does not appear in the Foundation's archives [note 2]). In this letter he says:
I have your letter of September 29 asking for further documentation regarding a statement made in my book, "The Truth about Water Fluoridation", to the effect that the idea of water fluoridation was brought to England from Russia by the Russian Communist Kreminoff. In the 1930's Hitler and the German Nazis envisioned a world to be dominated and controlled by a Nazi philosophy of pan-Germanism. The German chemists worked out a very ingenious and far-reaching plan of mass-control which was submitted to and adopted by the German General Staff. This plan was to control the population in any given area through mass medication of drinking water supplies. By this method they could control the population in whole areas, reduce population by water medication that would produce sterility in women, and so on. In this scheme of mass-control, sodium fluoride occupied a prominent place.
Note that Perkins does not actually provide 'further documentation regarding a statement made in my book……' He goes on to say:
When the Nazis under Hitler decided to go to Poland, both the German General Staff and the Russian General Staff exchanged scientific and military ideas, plans, and personnel, and the scheme of mass control through water medication was seized upon by the Russian Communists because it fitted ideally into their plans to communize the world.
This is not consistent with any assertion that fluoridation as a means of controlling the populace was an issue in pre-war communist Russia.
Perkins then says:
I was told of this entire scheme by a German chemist who was an official of the great I.G. Farben chemical industries and was also prominent in the Nazi movement at the time. (I.G. Farben refers to I.G. Farbenindustrie AG, the great German chemical conglomerate, which was dismantled by the Allies after WWII).
Perkins does not mention any of this in his book. I suppose there is just a possibility he was told about this after his book came out. Another oft-quoted source for the use of fluoridation by the Nazis is found in the following passage from an anti-fluoridation website (note 3):
The Gestapo you see had little concern about sodium fluoride's 'supposed' effect on children's teeth; instead, their reason for mass-medicating water with sodium fluoride was to STERILIZE HUMANS and force the people in their concentration camps into calm, bovine, submission. (See for reference: "The Crime and Punishment of I.G. Farben" written by Joseph Borkin.)
This book, a history of Farben until its demise, is referred to in countless copy-and-paste anti-fluoridation websites to support the theory that the Nazis used fluoridation for mind control. The book is available online (note 4). In fact it contains no reference at all to fluoride. Neither does the book mention Perkins, despite the fact that many websites state that after the war he was appointed by the United States government to take charge of Farben chemical plants in Germany. (I have been unable to find any sources other than anti-fluoridation literature for this; the earliest reference to it that I have located is in a letter to the Port Angeles Evening News, dated 11.1.63, from Mrs R.S. Gilmore, who states that Perkins was 'appointed…to help take charge' of Farben' (note 5). Any further information on this from readers would be very welcome.)
I conclude that the sole evidence that people adduce for the nefarious use of fluoridation by the Nazis is from the letter that Perkins wrote to the Lee Foundation in 1954 in which he claims he was told of a plan to this effect by a (unnamed) employee of Farben IG. I have not located any websites that report material evidence that the Nazis fluoridated water supplies for the purposes of subduing those accessing the water. Any such evidence on this will be gratefully received.
Now study this from an anti-fluoridation website (note 6):
[Was] Mrs Thatcher's astronomical expenditure of United Kingdom's revenue on a fluoridation campaign in Northern Ireland a matronly concern for the youngsters' teeth, or perhaps an attempt to sedate the people and render them subservient to her autocratic dictates? Remember this. Mrs Thatcher has a background of academic chemistry and would be far from ignorant of the tranquillising effects of the halogens and their halides.
Similarly, her legal and political shenanigans (that is the only word to describe her behaviour) in the England fluoridation scene offer many avenues for questioning of her motives.
Is any of the above relevant? Even if the Nazis did plan to put sodium fluoride in the water supply to subjugate the populace, or if they did implement this plan, what evidence is there that it would have the intended consequence? What concentration is necessary to produce such an effect? Is it not more often the case that when small concentrations of a substance have a beneficial effect, or are even essential, at higher concentrations adverse effects begin to emerge (cf. sodium chloride)?
I am trying to make up by mind about the advisability of fluoridation. I do not find any of this hullaballoo about what the Nazis are supposed to have done of any relevance whatsoever to my deliberations.