Fall 2017

The Danger of Fluoride Doubt

A flood of misinformation is undermining a successful public health effort.

By Helene Ragovin

Previous Next

Illustration: Brian Stauffer

Shortly after Valerie Martins, D07, DG10, moved to Lynnfield, Massachusetts, in 2016, she was surprised to discover that the utility supplying water to most of the town had stopped adding fluoride to its system.

A handful of residents had succeeded in putting an anti-fluoride measure up for a vote at the water district’s annual meeting, an event that usually passes relatively unnoticed by the 2,600 households and businesses served by the Lynnfield Center Water District. But once the under-the-radar decision caught the attention of some local parents, they spearheaded a drive to bring the issue back for another vote.

Despite seven decades as a proven public health measure—one of the 10 most successful of the 20th century, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—community water fluoridation to prevent tooth decay continues to encounter opposition. Just this past March, for example, the Environmental Protection Agency rejected a petition from anti-fluoride activists that sought to halt the addition of fluoride to water supplies nationwide. On the side of fluoridation: the dental profession, an acknowledged body of scientific literature and the endorsements of more than 100 national and international health organizations. On the side of anti-fluoridation: inaccurate information all over the internet. A 2014 report from the Journal of the Massachusetts Dental Society found that anti-fluoride websites were visited up to 60 times more frequently than pro-fluoride sites. Social media is flooded with alleged health risks, ranging from mottling of the teeth to birth defects and cancer. While some object to government intervention on principle, others go so far as to claim the government is using fluoride to somehow subdue the population.

“Fighting these people is like playing whack-a-mole. When one specious argument falls away, another pops up,” said Joseph Kenneally, D81. Early in his career, Kenneally helped bring fluoridated water to Biddeford, Maine, where he practices. Last fall, when seven towns in south coast Maine put an anti-fluoridation measure on the ballot, he campaigned against it—and watched in bitter disappointment as six of the seven towns voted “no” on fluoride.

Kathryn Dolan, assistant professor of public health at the School of Dental Medicine, has noticed anti-fluoride sentiment growing in tandem with the anti-vaccine movement. “I don’t think the parents of today know what decay looked like in the ’60s and ’70s,” Dolan said. “I was a hygienist. You would see 6-year-olds with no molars—the teeth had barely come in, and they had to come out.”

Dolan introduces first-year students to the fluoride controversy in her oral health promotion class, assigning them the roles of “pro” and “anti” in a town-hall style debate. Alec Eidelman, D18, a dual degree candidate in the DMD/MPH program, was inspired by what he learned and joined the nonprofit Better Oral Health for Massachusetts Coalition (BOHMAC). He campaigned to retain fluoridation in the towns of Rockport and Gloucester when the issue came up in 2015. (Both towns voted to keep fluoride.)

In Lynnfield, Valerie Martins and other pro-fluoride advocates relied on grass-roots education tactics, along with the idea of promoting a more transparent voting process, as they brought the issue back before the water district. “The debate was respectful and there was no animosity,” Martins said. “We just wanted to let the public decide.” In the end, the facts spoke for themselves: Next year, fluoride will once again flow through the taps in Lynnfield.

Top Stories

The Danger of Fluoride Doubt

A flood of misinformation is undermining a successful public health effort.

Coming Attraction

A dentist’s detective novel makes its way to the big screen with stars Andy Garcia, Sofia Vergara and Karl Urban.

Facing a Mystery

A novel use of 3-D imaging might help explain Bell’s palsy, a puzzling facial paralysis.

Gratitude for Where it All Began

A loyal alumnus supports a ground-floor facelift.

Editor's Picks

All the Presidents’ Teeth

Who didn’t floss? Who was a bruxer? And who could have used some whitening strips? Our faculty give some historical smiles a thorough checkup.

Filling a Need in Maine

In a state without enough dentists, postgraduate residencies boost access to care.

21st Century DMD

Educating the next generation of dentists

7 Decades of Smiles

Nancy Farris, 76, has been coming to Tufts for dental care since she was a young girl