Why anti-fluoride conspiracy theories have been around for over 70 years

There are some conspiracy theories that defy traditional ideological classification, and the anti-fluoride theories are among the oldest that still hold true. While it is well known that the provision of fluoridated water improves oral hygiene and that fluoridated water communities are healthier in this regard, there is still a rampant fluoride phobia.

Disgraced right-wing broadcaster Alex Jones, during his heyday, would famously and often trumpet his fear of fluoride, most notably saying it had lowered his IQ. Scan the conspiracy theory pages on Facebook and Reddit and you’ll find countless anti-fluoride conversations, big and small. They could be inspired by just about anything, from a grassroots movement in Portland, Oregon to a single post on a 2012 Harvard meta-analysis linking fluoridation to neurological disorders (the researchers themselves admitted it was based on studies of varying quality) . During the Cold War, civil society movements against fluoride often falsely claimed that water fluoridation was a Soviet conspiracy.

There are real-world consequences to these beliefs. Studies from Sweden to the United States have consistently shown that fluoride helps prevent cavities and tooth decay. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) called community fluoridation one of the great American achievements of the 20th century because of the important role it played in leading to massive reductions in the number of cavities in children and adults. Cohort studies consistently show that fluoridated water reduces the risk of tooth decay, cavities and tooth loss in both adults and children. According to 2018 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data, only 63.4 percent of Americans get fluoridated water.

However, fluoridation is not without its drawbacks: there are risks associated with: too many fluoride is being stopped in the water supply, with a 2019 study in Mexico and Canada that focused on possible links between fluoridation and brain development problems, concluding that “neurotoxicity appeared to be dose-dependent.” The study warned that safe levels of fluoride concentration in drinking water are likely to be lower than generally accepted and recommended amounts. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) mandates the “current enforceable drinking water standard” that levels of fluoride should not exceed “4.0 mg/L”, but the Sierra Club argues that this standard is far too high.

Nicole Johnson, an associate director at the CDC, told Salon by email that fluoridation “has made substantial contributions to narrowing disparities in oral health.”

But in the end, fluoridation has generally been a net public health benefit, even if implementation has been flawed in certain regions. Nicole Johnson, an associate director at the CDC who works in their department of oral health, told Salon by email that fluoridation “has made substantial contributions to narrowing disparities in oral health and is a practical, cost-effective and equitable measure that communities can take.” to prevent tooth decay and improve the oral health of residents.”


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Given that community fluoridation is such a public health triumph, why are conspiracy theorists still focusing on it? Part of the problem is that the Internet is fertile ground for every kind of misinformation out there, and anti-fluoride conspiracy theories are no different.

“Regardless of the subject matter, it is important to vet and validate information online,” explains Dr. Corey H. Basch, chair of the Department of Public Health at William Patterson University and an expert in analyzing health-related YouTube information. “Disinformation and misinformation are rampant issues that have a variety of consequences, from public confusion to fueling violence and hatred. Presenting information online in a way that promotes dialogue and respect can be helpful, but unfortunately it often isn’t. the case .”

Basch later added, “Based on the research I’ve conducted, misinformation about fluoride persists online and is typically embedded in a larger community water fluoridation debate.”

In addition to taking advantage of the intellectual anarchy of the Internet, anti-fluoride conspiracy theories are also backed by a long history. In fact, conspiracy theories against fluoridation have even managed to predate the actual dawn of fluoridation itself. When Grand Rapids, Michigan became the first American community to put fluoride in its water supply in 1945, city leaders already knew there was going to be a backlash because it was realized prematurely. Citizens who mistakenly believed the fluoride had been added weeks earlier already complained of sore gums and chipped tooth enamel and blamed a fluoridation program that had not yet been implemented.

Not surprisingly, once fluoridation became widespread, some figured out how to make their complaints plausible. A Conservative Democratic congressman, James J. Delaney, held a series of hearings in 1952 where seemingly “gotcha” questions were put to scientists to discredit the practice of fluoridation. Conservative political activist and FBI agent Dan Smoot claimed in 1959 that fluoride had been introduced into the water supply after leftist authoritarians wondered, “How could the ruling authorities ever manage to give drugs to an entire population?” The John Birch Society, a popular far-right conspiracy theory group at the time, endorsed Smoot’s views.

But as evidence came in that fluoridation had improved community dental health, more communities began implementing fluoridation programs. By 1960, 41 million Americans out of a population of nearly 180 million were drinking from fluoridated water supplies. By 2008, that number had grown to 72 percent of the total population. There has been much resistance during that period, but today any American can find out if their community has been fluoridated through the CDC’s My Water’s Fluoride link. It contains information up to 2018 — as of that year, the CDC estimates that 207,426,536 Americans (out of about 326.8 million) drank from fluoridated water supplies (data for 2020 is expected to be released in the fall).

Today, anti-fluoride conspiracy theories are still prevalent, but nowhere near their peak in the mid-20th century.

Basch argued that the argument about fluoridation today is often fixated on common water sources and has similarities with other public health fracases.

“As for fluoride, I wouldn’t be as concerned as I was in the early 1960s, when the John Birch Society was in its heyday, and fluoride wasn’t as ubiquitous in our society,” Dr. Ted Miller, a history professor at Northeastern University, told Salon by email. He argued that the benefits of fluoridation are widely perceived; and as such, “I don’t think we’ll be giving up on the beneficial benefits of fluoride overnight.”

Basch noted that the argument about fluoridation today is often fixated on common water sources and has similarities with other public health fracases. “What fuels the debate about community water fluoridation is the argument about the right to make informed decisions about whether and how to receive fluoride,” Basch noted. “The political and emotional nature of the debate has been accompanied by misinformation and misinformation, which is reflective of what we have seen in the current debates about vaccination in general and COVID-19 vaccination more specifically.”

As scientists continue to monitor the effects of fluoridation, even those advising caution — such as Dr. Junhewk Kim, author of a 2021 article on fluoridation – still insists that general community fluoridation has benefits.

“I don’t think there is an overall risk, if the procedure for applying fluoride to the water supply is properly managed,” Kim told Salon by email. “However, there may be locations where fluoride is overused. If water fluoridation policies are combined in areas where high fluoride toothpaste and fluoride gels and varnishes are commonly used in dental clinics, there is a possibility that low levels of fluorosis will occur, especially in children.” Fluorosis is a cosmetic condition in which the teeth appear to have small speckles.

Kim added: “However, if we ask what constitutes a greater oral health risk for children between mild fluorosis versus dental caries [tooth decay], of course, the latter has a significant negative impact on oral health. Therefore, I think mild fluorosis is an acceptable risk.”

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