September 13, 2014

Today I want to talk about fluoride — but probably not for the reason you think.  (OK, maybe a little bit for the reason you think.)  Ridiculously (in my opinion), the fluoridating of public water has become a hot-button topic in the past few decades, with a vocal and sometimes sizable contingent arguing that adding fluoride to public water is harmful to your health and shouldn’t be done.  Why?  There are any number of pseudo-scientific reasons, most of which are specifically debunked by the AAP: http://www.ilikemyteeth.org/fluoridation/dangers-of-fluoride/.  I won’t address these issues because many people have commented on them, and because the medical establishment keeps so many relatively safe drugs out of the United States that if the FDA says something is safe, I believe them.  Case in point: the therapeutic dose for ibuprofen for a guy my size is around 1200mg, yet this is six times the recommended dose on the bottle, and equal to the maximum recommended daily dose.

What I really want to talk about is chemical terminology, because that right there gives us a clue that we don’t need to be that worried about fluoride.  Generally speaking, lifeforms are neophobic (they fear new things), because until something is proven safe, it’s safer to avoid it.  This has become part of our genome, and virtually all species, including humans, display neophobia in many areas of interaction with their environment.  Because many people don’t care or know much about chemistry, they don’t know what chemical terms mean, and this often associates a negative outlook with them.  Because of this, people are often afraid of “chemicals”, even though all life is chemical.  One of the more outrageous claims I’ve come across is that fluoridated water is essentially a form of mind control used by the government to keep the populace docile.  This is impossible, and I’ll tell you why: it absolutely has to do with the fact that your toothpaste says “sodium fluoride” and not “sodium pentathal”.

Sodium thiopental, trademarked as sodium pentathal, is often known as a “truth serum”.  In fact it’s an anesthetic which, using the same chemical method as alcohol, makes it more difficult for you to lie because it suppresses higher brain function.  Truth serums work essentially the same way as a case of Natty Light: they make it hard to think straight, and if you consume too much, they make it hard to breathe straight.  So why am I bringing up this other “scary” chemical?  Because it doesn’t really have a name that we can break down.  I assume the “pent” has something to do with five, either as a number of molecules or an attachment site on a hydrocarbon chain, the “thio” tells us there’s sulfur in it, and the “al” probably means it’s something related to alcohol.  The full IUPAC name of this drug is [5-ethyl-4,6-dioxo-5-(pentan-2-yl)-1,4,5,6-tetrahydropyrimidin-2-yl]sulfanide sodium according to Wikipedia, so you know it’s serious.  That’s a bunch of words all describing different molecules, with the numbers describing where they’re attached to each other.  These are the types of molecules that can have subtle and mind-altering effects.  Often it’s also complex organic molecules that cause cancer, but there are also simple things that cause cancer, like radioactive elements.

Now I’ll give you the full chemical formula for fluoride.  Here it is: F.  That’s it.  It’s one atom.  As sodium fluoride it is exactly two atoms.  Fluoride is not a complex organic molecule, and as a result we don’t expect it to have complex and subtle effects on the human body.  In fact, it doesn’t.  Fluoride in high concentrations is really, really dangerous.  We know we’re not being poisoned by fluoride in the water because we’re still alive.  Liquid or gaseous fluorine will eat your face off in a second.  That’s why fluoride levels in public water are 0.7 mg/L.  At these levels you’d have to drink over 7000L of water (a liter is close in size to a quart, so we’re talking thousands of gallons) to hurt yourself.  If you drink just 8 glasses of water a day that’s 10 years worth of water — and you’d have to drink it within a short period of time to get lethal toxicity from fluoride.  That’s not to say that simple chemicals can have serious effects over long time periods.  Products containing bromide, another halogen ion, have been removed from OTC drugs since the 1970s for that very reason.  So maybe what I’m really saying is that it’s not that fluoride can’t have negative effects.  Maybe what I’m saying is that we know fluoride is toxic in the wrong doses, and we know fluoride is harmless in the right doses, and we have years and years of research into whether there are negative effects to long-term ingestion of low doses of fluoride, and all that research says its fine.  Does that mean it’s literally impossible that fluoride has negative effects that the mainstream scientific establishment hasn’t discovered?  No.  But it seems very, very unlikely to me, and the downsides of not having fluoridated water are well-documented and serious (dental caries, or cavities, are one of the biggest money pits in personal and societal medical care).

NOTE ABOUT COMMENTS: I always welcome opposing viewpoints, but I’m not going to publish comments that are merely antagonist, or that make claims without supporting peer-reviewed evidence or at least a solid logical argument.  This is my personal blog and comments on it that I publish reflect on me as a writer and as a person.