The Physics Police

The Physics Police

Monday, September 23, 2013

Fluoride and IQ

In October, 2012, Anna Choi from the Harvard School of Public Health published a paper in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives titled Developmental Fluoride Neurotoxicity: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.

This paper performed a meta-analysis of 27 studies from China, where the groundwater sometimes contains unsafe levels of naturally occurring fluoride. There paper finds a clear correlation between geographical regions with high levels of fluoride and lower IQ.

In January, 2013, the story was misappropriated by Joseph Mercola (the worst human being alive) in a Huffington Post article titled Harvard Study Confirms Fluoride Reduces Children's IQ. He uses the Choi paper to frighten readers into believing water fluoridation is unhealthy (it isn't), going so far as to call it "public murder".

I'm sure my readers can spot the fallacy in the Mercola article. It confuses exposure to HIGH levels of fluoride with the LOW levels added by water fluoridation. In the U.S., the target concentration of fluoride to 0.7 ppm. This places public water supplies within the "low dose" category for every single one of the studies used in the Choi meta-analysis.

Therefore, it's brutally false to claim this paper as evidence for any danger from 0.7 ppm fluoride.

The meta-analysis found the opposite to be true.

Water fluoridation, up to 0.7 ppm, is associated with higher IQ!

Remember, too, that correlation does not equal causation. Choi will be the first one to tell you that confounding variables can mask causation, or exaggerate a correlation when little or no causation is present, at all.

For example, high fluoride levels in water is an indicator of high levels of heavy metals, like lead and mercury, which have well-studied neurological effects. In the Harvard press release, Choi's co-author Philippe Grandjean even hints at this:
Fluoride seems to fit in with lead, mercury, and other poisons that cause chemical brain drain...
(I strongly object to the kitschy phrase "brain drain", but oh well.)

The other major flaw with the Choi meta-analysis is that it doesn't adequately control for other environmental sources of fluoride. For example, take the Guizhou province, where 10.5 million cases of dental fluorosis were reported in 2001. There, coal burning was suspected as the culprit for this poisoning, but it was later discovered that 85% of the air fluoride was due to local clay added to the fuel.

It stands to reason that regions where water fluoride is high, clay fluoride is also high. So, fluoride doses will be exaggerated due to the practice of mixing clay with coal. Not to mention dietary sources of fluoride, and fluoride as an environmental pollutant.

Clearly feeling the heat, Harvard released a statement on the fluoride paper in which they disclaim:
These results do not allow us to make any judgment regarding possible levels of risk at levels of exposure typical for water fluoridation in the U.S.
Anyway, studies have been done on the intelligence of rats, which show a lack of effect of chronic (high-level) exposure to fluoride:
Chronic ingestion of fluoride at levels up to 230 times more than that experienced by humans whose main source of fluoride is fluoridated water had no significant effect on appetitive-based learning.
Not to mention the mountain of evidence showing water fluoridation to be safe...

Sadly, this is far from the end of the story. The anti-science myth that water fluoridation will lower children's IQ was touted heavily in the political battleground of Portland, Oregon. There, legislation was recently introduced to add safe levels of fluoride to the public water supply.

After public outcry, this measure was put to a vote. Portland voters rejected the proposal to fluoridate by a 60% majority. Tellingly, one voter told the USA today:
I don't want chemicals in my water. I know that there are really no known health risks with it, but there's a lot of things we find out later in life really do have health risks.
Here, we see science illiteracy in two forms.

First, there's the derogatory use of the word "chemicals", which demonstrates a popular fallacy called the appeal to nature. The implication is that the presence of fluoride in water is unnatural. However, as we saw in the Choi paper, China has a huge health problem with naturally occurring fluoride! The quote above demonstrates total ignorance of this fact.

Fluoride isn't some mysterious "chemical". It's just a fluorine anion. Fluorine is one of the top 20 most abundant elements in the Earth's crust. It's hardly unnatural. It's found in seawater at 1.3 ppm. Life has had to deal with low levels of fluoride since its beginning.

Second, although this voter is aware of no health risks from water fluoridation, she remains skeptical. She opposes water fluoridation on grounds of the precautionary principle. Perhaps she doesn't know that the practice has been in place for over 50 years! Really, precaution is an excuse. She's made up her mind that fluoride is bad, and no amount of evidence can meet her impossible standards. This is called denialism.

This voter may be well-meaning, if not critically-thinking, but her hypocrisy is two-fold.

First, she presumably trusts the government to remove toxic levels of certain elements from the drinking water (chlorine, arsenic, lead, mercury, and selenium), but has a knee-jerk reaction against the addition of just this one element: fluorine? Why...? (Special thanks to Kyle Hill.)

Portland already teats water with chloramine (LD50 = 935 mg/kg) for disinfection. Where is the huge billboard demanding this deadly toxin to be taken out of Portland's water supply?

Second, She probably drinks vitamin D milk (LD50 = 619 mg/kg), eats pasta enriched with iron (LD50 = 30 g/kg), uses iodized table salt (LD50 = 14 g/kg), and eats cereal fortified with zinc, etc. Why isn't she worried that these toxic chemicals are being added to her food?

Oh, right, because they're healthy...

Well, so is fluoridated water:
Today, even with the widespread use of fluoride toothpaste, mouth rinse, and professional fluoride treatments, fluoridation has been shown to reduce tooth decay by 18-40% among children and by nearly 35% among adults.
This is the point that anti-fluoridationists want you to forget.

Water fluoridation is healthy for teeth!

The dental health of Portland residents has been put at quantifiable risk by scientific ignorance.
Ironically, too, they've made a risky choice in the name of precaution.

Some voters may have voted against fluoridation because they were worried about their IQ points...

Fred Armisen expresses concern over his IQ points.

Well, so am I!

Just, for different reasons.


  1. "Portland already teats water with chloramine (LD50 = 935 mg/kg) for disinfection. Where is the huge billboard demanding this deadly toxin to be taken out of Portland's water supply?"

    Dear god don't give them ideas.

  2. It's too bad that fluoridation has become an issue in so many places. Windsor, Canada, decided to remove fluoride from water some time ago, annoying a lot of people that still believe it's a useful thing.

  3. In this article, the writer links nine pieces of evidence to illustrate the "mountain of evidence showing water fluoridation to be safe..."

    Let's examine these more closely. Here they are:

    "mountain(1) of(2) evidence(3) showing(4) water(5) fluoridation(6) to(7) be(8) safe(9)..."

    1. A study on the effect of fluoride only on dental carries.
    2. A study on the effect of fluoride only on dental carries.
    3. Not a study at all, more of a position paper. No evidence presented.
    4. A duplicate of (3)
    5. Not a study at all, a public position statement. No evidence presented.
    6. A meta-analysis. The report is full of the following statement: "There is currently no evidence available to determine the impact of (X) upon (Y)" meaning that the research simply hasn't been done. "The authors of previous systematic reviews concluded that the studies examining other possible negative effects of water fluoridation provide insufficient evidence to reach a conclusion.' This is not comforting, and doesn't really bolster your case.

    The entire section on cancer was based heavily on McDonagh 2000a, a summary again of other research: "The included studies were generally of poor quality (5 moderate quality, 21 low quality evidence). None of the included studies involved prospective follow-up or reported any form of blinding."

    As to the other studies, all but one showed some positive correlation between fluoride and cancer, but the author just dismisses all of this out of hand.
    7. Meta-analysis. Executive Summary: "Overall, the studies examining other possible negative effects provide insufficient evidence on any particular outcome to permit confident conclusions. Further research in these areas needs to be of a much higher quality and should address and use appropriate methods to control for confounding factors."
    8. Meta-analysis, focused on carries and a pubmed search query not showing any bad effects.
    9. Meta-analysis, only carries and fluorosis.

    What your own links, claiming to show "the mountain of evidence showing water fluoridation to be safe" instead prove convincingly that this issue is understudied, even after 50+ years, and the precautionary principle demands that we stop all fluoridation immediately until detailed research is carried out.

    For instance, we have these Chinese studies showing a link between fluoride an low IQ. Fine, the dosages are different, variables are not isolated, OK.

    But what we DON'T have is a shred of western research demonstrating that 'optimal fluoride' levels do NOT negatively impact IQs.

    We've just never looked at the issue in the slightest.

    What we find, on the subject of mass medicating hundreds of millions with industrial byproduct without their consent, is that comprehensive research on the safety of this program has simply NEVER BEEN DONE.

    It's settled that fluoride lowers carries, but whether it also lowers IQ is a question that has simply never been seriously considered.

    Because this presumption of safety is the basis of your other arguments, your failure here to demonstrate safety collapses everything else you have written on the page. Every word on this page is intellectually empty filler. Have a good day.

  4. Unknown,

    The "mountain of evidence" links are meant only to demonstrate the weight of scientific consensus. Still, your knit picking is appreciated. Source 4 is, indeed, a repeat!

    You're right, though, that none of those studies searched for a link between Fluoride and IQ.

    Nor did they search for a link between Fluoride and erectile dysfunction, obesity, sweaty palms, hearing loss, glossolalia, hair color, etc. That's because there's no reason to suspect any of those things are caused by tooth-protecting levels of fluoride. Nor is there reason to suspect that the IQ correlation in the Choi meta analysis has relevance to the safety of US water fluoridation.

    That's not to say that the Choi paper is uninteresting. I would like to test my theory that other heavy metals, also found in highly fluoridated water, are the culprit! More research would be a good thing.

    Voting against water fluoridation is a bad thing. That is the thesis of my post.

    I most certainly have NOT failed to demonstrate safety! I said, quite clearly, that US water supplies fall within the "low fluoride" and "high IQ" categories of the Choi paper.

    You should take a break from blowing hot air to read my post more carefully.

  5. By the way,

    Your "the science is not in yet" style argument is called denialism. Plain and simple.

    Your bit about no "shred of western research" is called the appeal to ignorance fallacy.

    The use of trigger words like "mass medicating" and "industrial byproduct" betrays your cruel heart, and unshakable bias.

    Have a good day.

  6. Finally,

    1. Did study safety. "There was no clear evidence of other potential adverse effects."
    2. Did study safety. "... evaluate the ... health effects of fluoride and fluoridation."
    3. Important because it debunks anti-fluoridation myths like increases lead in water.
    4. Duplicate, thanks for pointing that out!
    5. Consensus among dentists based on review of scientific evidence.
    6. Consensus in Australia based on review of scientific evidence.
    7. Consensus in the UK based on review of scientific evidence.
    8. Consensus of an independent task force based on review of scientific evidence.
    9. Did study safety. "... reviews of the effectiveness and safety of water fluoridation."

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. Nod Dranoel, thanks for helping make my point about just who's IQ we should really be worried about.