Fluoridation debate: Why I support fluoridation – 2nd reply to Connett

This is Ken Perrott’s response to Paul Connett’s second criticism of Ken’s article Fluoride Debate: Why I support fluoridation – 2nd response from Connett.

For Ken Perrott’s original article see – Fluoride debate: Why I support fluoridation.

It is a pity that Paul Connett chose to ignore the ethical question of balancing personal choice and social good because he took my comments on this as a personal criticism of him. They were not meant to be. I am happy to discuss the science but, in the end, science cannot make ethical and values decisions for us. Yes, it can, and should, inform those decisions – but pretending they are only about science does a disservice to science and to ethics.

Unfortunately science is often used in these sort of debates as a proxy for values issues. Professor Gluckman pointed that out in his statement What is in the water?  An excellent article by Tania Ritchie in Science and Society outlines the dangers of this approach (see  The fluoridation debate: why we all lose when we pretend it’s just about science). She shows how using science as a proxy backs people into pseudoscientific corners (and that is certainly an issue for these opposing fluoridation). It also places an impossible demand of certainty on science (“prove to me beyond doubt that fluoride at optimal concentrations is completely safe – if in doubt leave it out”). And concentration on the science often disguises poor ethical positions. She concludes:

“Using good science to counter bad science is productive. Using good science to tell us what will happen if we make a certain decision is also, of course, vital. But pretending science can tell us what decision we should make, or trying to counter ethical concerns with science, will never be helpful.”

Well, for the moment I guess I am opting for “using good science to counter bad science” but I hope we can return to these ethical issues at some stage.

Nature of bioapatites and systemic role for fluoride

Paul seems not to have taken on board my description of the structural role of fluoride in apatites and the recognised beneficial role of ingested fluoride. (Perhaps he considered that section was somehow a personal criticism and should be ignored.)

Mind you, I keep coming across that problem with other anti-fluoride  activists. They wish to talk only about topical application of fluoride, and ignore completely the beneficial effects of ingested fluoride. This seems to create reading, hearing and comprehension problems for them. So I get accused of advocating that suntan lotion should be drunk or similar attempts at humour!

However, it is a critical feature of this debate so I will just start this response by briefly repeating a few things.

  • Fluoride is a normal, natural component of bioapatites. In the real world these don’t exist as end-member compounds such as hydroxylapatite or fluoroapatite. They are more correctly described as hydroxyl-fluoro-carbonate-apatites.
  • Accumulation of fluoride, together with calcium and phosphate, in our bioapatites is a normal part of development. This is beneficial because it helps strength our bones and teeth, and lowers their solubility.
  • Both insufficient fluoride, or excess fluoride in our bioapatites can cause problems.
  • Excessive dietary intake can result in excessive fluoride in our bones and teeth. Insufficient intake may also cause our bioapatites to be weaker and more prone to dissolve. When dietary intake of fluoride is reduced fluoride can be lost from bones and calcified tissues.
  • The scientific literature reports that fluoride has a systemic role benefitting bones and pre-erupted teeth

Surface mechanisms for reducing tooth decay

We seem to be making a little progress here with the so-called “topical” mechanism – but only a little and very grudgingly. Paul has apologised for misrepresenting my explanation of the surface mechanism for the action of fluoridated water in countering tooth decay in existing teeth. He acknowledges that I was discussing the transfer of fluoride to saliva from water during drinking water, and not the smaller concentrations coming from the salivary glands after ingestion.

In this I was simply reporting what I have read in the scientific literature.  But Paul will still have none of that. He concedes that fluoride in saliva “may or may not do something” and presents his own “simple personal observations” to claim that there is little chance of drinking water mixing with saliva. Not the first time I have heard this argument – and it always brings a picture to mind of a committed anti-fluoride activist drinking their water through a tube down the throat. I leave it to readers to observe their own drinking behaviour and decide if drinking water has little chance of mixing with saliva – or transferring ions to saliva.

So it is one step forward and another step back. Made worse by his assertion (from personal experience) “that the fluoride ions have little opportunity to form a biofilm on any teeth other than the back of the front teeth.” Of course the fluoride does not form a biofilm. It and other ions in the water and saliva do, however, transfer to, and diffuse through, existing biofilms (plaque) on the teeth.

There are quite a few reports of the effect of regular consumption of fluoridated water increasing the F concentrations in saliva and plaque both after ingestion (eg Cury & Tenuta 2008Martínez-Mier 2012) and directly Featherston 2000Bruun & Thylstrup 1984). (Yes, I realise that the CDC sates that the ingested fluoride delivered to saliva “is not likely to affect cariogenic activity” and this is echoed by other writers. However, there still seem to be workers who argue this does contribute and I am aware of laboratory experiments showing the mechanism can work at very low fluoride concentrations. But this is a detail I will leave to the experts – it doesn’t affect the current exchange).

Loaded language and scientific knowledge

Paul again refers to advances of scientific knowledge in a sneering way. He claims that the CDC “admitted” that research indicated the prevention of dental caries by fluoride occurs by a topical mechanism in existing teeth. He also speculates that the CDC “was scrambling to salvage some kind of role for fluoridated water . . . Despite its admission of the predominance of the topical effect.” Can somebody with research experience in chemistry really see scientific progress as some sort of winning-out over a conspiracy to ignore the “truth?”

Mary Byrne, a local anti-fluoridation spokesperson, shows a similar apparent misunderstanding of the nature of scientific knowledge when she describes, disparagingly,  this progress in understanding as scientists being “wrong for fifty years.” She keeps repeating this even though her error has been explained to her.

These characterisations are like saying Newton was wrong with his laws of motion or that he was somehow hiding the truth and Einsteinian relativity  is simply a case of scientists being forced to “admit”, or “concede” they were wrong – as if they had hidden something!

Use of loaded language like this has a political purpose which interferes with proper understanding of the science.

The journal Fluoride

Paul describes my comments about the journal Fluoride, and its editors, as “derogatory,” and accuses me of “double standards.” I think that shows a sensitivity and inability to consider my comments objectively. Not surprising, as Paul has some “irons in the fire” on this issue.

I said that “if I had some credible findings in fluoride chemistry and wished to present a paper to the scientific community for their consideration Fluoride is the last journal I would choose.” This isn’t completely hypothetical because I have published a few papers on fluoride chemistry. So how do I decide where to publish my work?

Firstly, my fluoride work was relevant to pedology and soil chemistry so it was natural to consider soil science journals. This was the audience to aim for and our work was of direct relevance to readers of those journals. I doubt that many of our intended audience or their institutes subscribed to, or read, Fluoride.

But, today if I were considering a general  journal and had a look at Fluoride what would I find. First of all the website (where I would go to judge the journal’s scope, requirements and refereeing policy) – seriously, does this show a credible scientific society or editorial office?


This is what greets you as the home page for the Fluoride journal (http://www.fluorideresearch.org/)

That extremely amateurish web page puts me off – perhaps there are other general journals dealing with fluoride (contrary to Paul’s claim). Let us see if Journal of Fluoride Chemistry is better? See the difference?


Home page for the Journal of Fluorine Chemistry

Secondly, a quick skim of accepted papers in Fluoride indicates many are related to areas where fluoride toxicity is a problem because natural levels are high or excessive. The quality of many of these papers appears poor, a common problem where there are many authors whose main language is not English. It has a predominantly “third World” appearance. This would also raise a flag about possibly low standards of editorial review. Have a look at the list of contents for one of the 2007 issues.

None of these factors would attract me as a working and publishing scientist concerned at establishing a publication record in high quality and credible journals.

However, if I was a non-English speaker with routine work which I might find difficulty publishing elsewhere, and especially if that work was related to areas where natural fluoride levels were high, I would probably consider the journal. With the realisation in the back of my mind that I would probably have no luck with submission to a more reputable journal.

Now, I am not being “personal” or “derogatory” in making  that realistic evaluation. Nor do I think there are “double standards’ in choosing a good journal for publication. Good work deserves a good journal for publication.

Paul effectively concedes this in referring to attempts by Xiang et al to get their work published in a more reputable journal. He laments the fact that this journal would not include material already published in Fluoride (standard procedure in the publishing world) as amounting to Xiang’s material being “withheld from the mainstream scientific community.” (Paul obviously agrees that Fluoride does not have a good standing in the mainstream scientific community). The lesson being that Xiang should have gone for the reputable journal first time around. Why publish in a journal which does not give access to “the mainstream scientific community” if one’s work is good enough to get published in a reputable journal

That is a sensible question – not a derogatory one.

Connett’s relation with Fluoride

It is instructive to look at Paul Connett’s own publications in Fluoride. He claims to have researched the issue for 17 years and I would expect that at least some of his research papers would have ended up in this journal.

A simple search for the name Connett showed me a couple of guest editorials – often coauthored with editors of the journal (see for example Professionals moblize to end water fluroidation and Misplaced trust in official reports), a book review (coauthored with editors of the journal), reports of the International Fluoride Society (IFS – owner of Fluoride) conferences. There were abstracts of papers or posters presented at IFS conferences authored by Paul, Ellen and Michael Connett – but no sign of formal papers for these. (I hope Paul will correct me and provide links if I have missed papers with full text.)

This at least tells me that Paul is on excellent terms with those editing and running this journal. Not surprising when one looks at the names in the editorial board of the journal, the western contributors to the journal and the names on the advisory board of Paul’s activist organisation Fluoride Alert.

Another thing that stands out for me about the editorial and advisory boards is the large number of retired, former, emeritus academics (around 17 from a glance). In the past I have also noticed this about the organisations and petitions of climate change climate contrarians/deniers/pseudosceptics. As a retired scientist myself I can appreciate how such issues can become hobbies, and avenues for social involvement and personal standing for people who formerly relied on their employment and professional standing for such things. I can also appreciate that retirement