Tag Archives: ADHD

Fluoridation not associated with ADHD – a myth put to rest

Fluoridated water is NOT associated with ADHD: Photo by mtl_moe

The myth of community water fluoridation causing attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is just not supported by the data. I show this in a new paper accepted for publication in the British Dental Journal. This should remove any validity for the claims about ADHD by anti-fluoride campaigners.

Mind you, I do not expect them to stop making those claims.

The citation for this new paper is (will be):

Perrott, K. W. (2017). Fluoridation and attention hyperactivity disorder – a critique of Malin and Till. British Dental Journal. In press.

The Background

The fluoridation causes ADHD myth was initially started by the publication of Malin & Till’s paper in 2015:

Malin, A. J., & Till, C. (2015). Exposure to fluoridated water and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder prevalence among children and adolescents in the United States: an ecological association. Environmental Health, 14.

It was quickly taken up and promoted by anti-fluoride campaigners – becoming one of their most cited papers when claiming harmful psychological effects from fluoridation. Part of the reason for its popularity is that it is the only published paper reporting an association between community water fluoridation (CWF) incidence and the prevalence of a psychological deficit. All other reports on this used by anti-fluoride campaigners are based on studies made in high fluoride regions like China where fluorosis is endemic. Those studies are just not relevant to CWF.

While many critics rejected Malin & Till’s conclusions on the simple basis that correlation does not mean causation I decided to look a bit deeper and test their statistical analyses. This was easy because they used published US data for each US state and such data is available for many factors.

I posted my original findings in the article ADHD linked to elevation not fluoridation. This showed that a number of factors were independently associated with ADHD prevalence (eg., home ownership, poverty, educational attainment, personal income, and % of the population older than 65) and these associations were just as significant statistically as the associaiton reported by Malin & Till.

However, multiple regression of possible modifying factors showed no statistically significant of ADHD prevalence with CWF incidence when mean state elevation was includedd.

The importance of elevation was confirmed by Huber et al. (2015):

Huber, R. S., Kim, T.-S., Kim, N., Kuykendall, M. D., Sherwood, S. N., Renshaw, P. F., & Kondo, D. G. (2015). Association Between Altitude and Regional Variation of ADHD in Youth. Journal of Attention Disorders.

Huber et al., (2015) did not include CWF incidence in their analyses. I have done this with the new paper in the British Dental Journal.

Publication problems

I firmly believe that scientific journals, like  Environmental Health which published the Malin & Till paper, have an ethical obligation to accept critiques of papers they publish (subject to peer review of course). Similarly, it is appropriate that any critique of a published paper is made in the journal where it was originally published. Implicit in this arrangement, of course, is that the authors of the original paper get the chance to respond to any critique and that the response be published by the original journal.

Unfortunately, this was not possible for this paper because the Chief Editor of  Environmental Health,  Prof Philippe Grandjeansimply refused to allow this critique to be considered for publication. No question of any peer reviuew. In his rejection he wrote:

“Although our journal does not currently have a time limit for submission of comments on articles published in EH, we are concerned that your response appears a very long time after the publication of the article that you criticize. During that period, new evidence has been published, and you cite some of it. There are additional studies that would also have to be taken into regard in a comprehensive comment, as would usually be the case after two years. In addition, the way the letter is written makes us believe that the letter is part of a controversy, and our journal is certainly not the appropriate forum for a dispute on fluoride policies.”

My response pointed out the reasons for the time gap (problems related to the journals large publication fee), that no other critique of the Malin & Till paper had yet been published and that any perceived polemics in the draft should normally be attended to by reviewers. This was ignored by Grandjean.

While Grandjean’s rejection astounded me – something I thought editors would consider unethical – it was perhaps understandable. Grandjean is directly involved as an author of several papers that activists use to criticise community water fluoridation. Examples are:

Grandjean is part of the research group that has published data on IQ deficits in areas of endemic fluorosis – studies central to the anti-fluoride activist claims that CWF damages IQ.  He has also often appears in news reports supporting research findings that are apparently critical of CWF so has an anti-fluoridation public standing.

In my posts Poor peer-review – a case study and Poor peer review – and its consequences I showed how the peer review of the original Malin & Till paper was one-sided and inadequate. I also provided a diagram (see below) showing the relationship of Grandjean as Chief Editor of the Journal, and the reviewers as proponents of chemical toxicity mechanisms of IQ deficits.

So, I guess a lesson learned. But the unethical nature of Grandjean’s response did surprise me.

I then submitted to paper to the British Dental Journal. It was peer-reviewed, revised and here we are.

The guts of the paper

This basically repeated the contents of my article ADHD linked to elevation not fluoridation. However, I tried to use Malin &Till’s paper as an example of problems in ecological or correlation studies. In particular the inadequate consideration of possible risk-modifying factors. Malin & Till clearly had a bias against CWF which they confirmed by limiting the choice of covariates that might show them wrong. I agree that a geographic factor like altitude may not have been obvious to them but their discussion showed a bias towards chemical toxicity mechanisms – even though other social factors are often considered to be implicated in ADHD prevalence.

Unfortunately, Malin & Till’s paper is not an isolated example. Another obvious example of confirmation bias is that of Peckham et al., (2015). They reported an association of hypothyroidism with fluoridation but did not include the most obvious example of iodine deficiency as a risk-modifying factor in their statistical analysis

Of course, anti-fluoride campaigners latched on to the papers of Peckham et al., (2015) and Malin & Till (2015) to “prove” fluoridation was harmful. I guess such biased use of the scientific literature simply to be expected from political activists.

However,  I also believe the scientific literature contains many other examples where inadequate statistical analyses in ecological studies have been used to argue for associations which may not be real. Such papers are easily adopted by activists who are arguing for or against specific social policies or social attitudes. For example, online articles about religion will sometimes refer to published correlations of religosity with IQ, educational level or scoio-economic status. Commenters simply select the studies which confirm the bias they are arguing for.

These sort of ecological or corellations studies can be useful for developing hypotheses for future study but it is wrong to use them to support an argument and worse as “proof” of an argument.

Take home message

  1. There is no statistically significant association of CWF with ADHD prevalence. Malin & Till’s study was flawed by lack of consideration of other possible risk-modifying factors;
  2. Be very wary of ecological or correlation studies.Correlation is not evidence for causation and many of these sudues iognore other possible important risk-modifying factors.

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Leader of flawed fluoridation study gets money for another go

christine-till

Professor Christine Till has been given a $300,000 grant to test for harmful effects of fluoride.

Malin and Till (2015) published research indicating a relationship between fluoridation and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). However, that study was flawed because it omitted important confounders. When these are included the relationship disappears.

I analysed that study in my article ADHD linked to elevation not fluoridation where I showed the relationship of ADHD to elevation was much more important than fluoridation. Huber at al., (2015) published work confirming the relationship of ADHD with elevation. So, obviously, elevation is an important confounder and  Malin and Till (2015) did not consider it in their study.

My own analysis indicated that there were a number of other confounders which are related to ADHD – with correlations similar to (eg., educational attainment, proportion of the sate’s population older than 65  and Per Capita personal income) or better (mean state elevation, home ownership and % living in poverty ) than that for fluoridation. That rings alarm bells – why consider only one factor (fluoridation) if there are other factors which appear equally or more important? Isn’t that confirmation bias? (I concede that Malin and Till did include a socioeconomic measure in their statistical analysis – but this was clearly not enough).

I tested the relative importance of the different facts using multiple regression and – sure enough – found that once a few important confounders were included water fluoridation could not explain any of the variance in ADHD! The statistically significant factors were mean elevation, home ownership, and poverty. The contribution of fluoridation was not statistically significant in this multiple regression.

A model including mean state elevation, home ownership and poverty explains about 45% of the variance in ADHD – much better than fluoridation could (Malin and Till explained 27 -32% for the fluoridation data).

Now, I read that Professor Till has been given research finds to have another go and possible harmful effects of fluoride. (see York professor leads study that could help answer fluoride safety questions). She plans to look at data from a Canadian investigation of pregnant women exposed to  contaminants. She says:

“Our study employs a prospective design that includes biomarkers of exposure to fluoride, detailed assessment of potential confounders, a comparison group, and the use of sensitive cognitive and behavioural measures that have been collected in one of the world’s most comprehensively characterized national pregnancy cohorts (MIREC).”

Now, I am pleased she aspires to a “detailed assessment of potential confounders” but wonder how detailed this will be after the problems with the Malin and Till (2015) study.

I have not yet seen any published response to the Malin and Till paper – maybe the cost of publication (US$2020) that journal is discouraging critics. It certainly discouraged me (I do not have institutional support for publication costs). Nevertheless, I hope professor Till has been acquainted with some of the criticism of that paper so that she can pay more attention to important confounders in the coming work

We can draw a few lessons from this.

Be careful of published statistical relationships

These days it is so easy to hunt down data and do this sort of exploratory statistical searching for significant relationships. But a statistically significant relationship is not evidence of a real cause. For example, there is a strong relationship between the sales of organic produce and prevalence of autism – but I have yet to hear anyone seriously suggest the relationship is at all causal.

But the scientific literature is still full of such studies – and I guess the motivated author can easily find arguments and other data in the literature that they, at least, feel convincing enough to justify publication.

Refereeing of scientific papers is, on the whole, abysmal

All authors have a pretty good idea of which journals, and reviewers, will be friendlier to their work – and which would be antagonistic. It is only natural tosubmitt to the friendlier journal.

Unfortunately, the Malin and Till paper was submitted to a journal with editors known to be friendly to a chemical toxicity model of cognitive deficits. Further, it turns out that the reviewers chosen for the paper were also supportive of such an approach.

While one reviewer did suggest including lead as a possible confounder (again showing a chemical toxicity bias) none of them suggested consideration of other confounders more likely to be connected with ADHD.

I discussed the editorial and reviewer problems of the Malin and Till paper in . (The journal, Environmental Health, has a transparent peer-review process which provides access to the names and reports of the reviewers.)

Again – another example of readers beware – even readers of scientific papers in credible journals.

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ADHD link to fluoridation claim undermined again

Recently I suggested that Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) was better correlated with elevation than with community water fluoridation (see ADHD linked to elevation not fluoridation). I criticised the study of Malin and Till (2015) for limiting their investigation to a chemical toxicity hypothesis and pointed out that once confounding factors like elevation are included their reported relationship between ADHD and community water fluoridation (CWF) disappears.

Seems I am not the only one to notice this. A new paper reports that same relationship:

Huber, R. S., Kim, T.-S., Kim, N., Kuykendall, M. D., Sherwood, S. N., Renshaw, P. F., & Kondo, D. G. (2015). Association Between Altitude and Regional Variation of ADHD in Youth. Journal of Attention Disorders.

They used data sets for the prevalence of ADHD in 2007 and 2010 in US states and found a negative relationship with average state elevation. Their correlation coefficients (R 2 = .38, p < .001; R 2 = .31, p < .001 respectively) are similar to the one I found.

This paper effectively supports my earlier conclusion:

“I do not think Malin and Till (2015) are justified in drawing the conclusion that CWF influences ADHD. Their mistaken conclusion has arisen from their limited choice of data considered for the exploratory analysis. That in itself seems to have resulted from a bias inherent in their hypothesis that “fluoride is a widespread neurotoxin.”

I was not advancing an alternative hypothesis but Huber et al., (2015) did suggest the hypothesis:

“As decreased dopamine (DA) activity has been reported with ADHD and hypoxia has shown to be associated with increased DA, we hypothesized that states at higher altitudes would have lower rates of ADHD.”

But the important lesson is once factors like elevation are taken into account there is no statistically significant relationship with CWF. The Malin & Till (2015) paper currently heavily promoted by anti-fluoride propagandists is flawed.

See alsoRates of ADHD appear to decrease at higher altitudes

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Is comfirmation bias essential to anti-fluoride “research?”

Anti-fluoride propagandists like Declan Waugh and Paul Connett avidly scan the scientific literature looking for anything they can present as evidence for harmful effects of community water fluoridation (CWF). Sometimes they will even do their own “research”  using published and on-line health data looking for any correlations with CWF, or even just with fluoride levels in drinking water.

Several years ago an activist going under the nom de plume “Fugio” posted images showing correlations of mental retardation, adult tooth loss and ADHD with the incidence of CWF in the US. These images are simply the result of “research” driven by confirmation bias and data dredging.They prove nothing. Correlation is not proof of a cause. And no effort was made to see if other factors could give better correlations.

I go through Fugio’s examples below – partly because I noticed one of their images surfacing recently on an anti-fluoridation Facebook page as “proof” that CWF causes tooth loss. But also because they are just more examples of the type of limited exploratory analysis used in two recently published papers – Peckham et al., (2015) (discussed in my article Paper claiming water fluoridation linked to hypothyroidism slammed by experts) and Malin and Till (2015) (discussed in my articles More poor-quality research promoted by anti-fluoride activistsADHD linked to elevation not fluoridation and Poor peer-review – a case study).

ADHD

This figure is essentially the same as that reported by Malin & Till (2015). In fact, I wonder if Fugio (who posted December 2012) is the unattributed source of Malin & Till’s hypothesis. Fugio chose the ADHD data for 2007 and fluoridation data for 2006 whereas Malin and Till (2015) concentrated mainly on fluoridation data for 1992 which had the highest correlation with ADHD figures.

I won’t discuss this further here – my earlier article ADHD linked to elevation not fluoridation shows there are a number of other factors which correlate with ADHD prevalence just as well or better than CWF incidence does and should have at least been considered as confounding if not the main factors. I found a model using mean elevation, home ownership and poverty only (no CWF included) explained about 48% of the variation whereas their model using CWF and mean income explained only 22-31% of the variation. And when these confounder factors were considered the correlation of ADHD with CWF was not statistically significant.

In other words we could do a far better job of predicting ADHD prevalence without involving CWF.

Water Fluoridation and Adult Tooth Loss

Fugio posted a figure showing a correlation of adult tooth loss with CWF incidence in 2008. It was statistically significant explaining 11% of the variation. But quite a few other factors display better correlations with adult tooth loss. For example, the data for smoking by itself explains 66% of the variation (see figures below).

Teeth-smoke

Checking out correlations with a range of factors I found a model involving only smoking and longitude  explaining  about 74% of the variation. The contribution from CWF was not significant statistically – it added nothing to this model.

Water Fluoridation and Mental Retardation

Fugio found a better relationship between CWF in 1992 and mental retardation in 1993 – a correlation explaining 19% of the variation. Apparently the concept of “mental retardation” was later abandoned as there do not appear to be any more recent statistics.

But again, if Fugio had not stopped there he/she would have found a number of other factors with better correlations. I give an example in the figure where state educational level (% Bachelors Degree in 1993) explained 50% if the variation. This correlation is negative as we might expect.

mental

 Again I used multiple regression analysis to derive a model involving educational level (% with Bachelors degree in 1993), poverty in 1993 and mean state elevation which explained 69% of the variation. No statistically significant contribution from CWF occurred.

Conclusions

I am not suggesting here that the factors I identified have a causal effect. Simply that they give better correlations  than CWF. These and similar confounding factors should have been considered by Fugio and Malin and Till (2015).

My purpose is to show that this sort of exploratory analysis of easily available data can easily produce results for anti-fluoride activists who are searching for some “sciency” looking arguments to back up  their position. Provided they don’t look too deeply, stop while they are ahead and refuse to consider the influence of other factors.

Unfortunately poor peer review by some journals is allowing publication of work that is no better than this. Peckham et al (2015) did nothing to check out other factors except gender in their correlations of hypothyroidism with CWF. The glaring omission was of course dietary iodine which is known to have a causative link with hypothyroidism. (I could not find US data for hypothyroidism so was unable to check out Peckham et al’s hypothesis for the US.) Malin and Till (2015) included only socioeconomic status (as indicated by income) in their analysis despite the fact that ADHD is known to be related to a number of factors like smoking and alcohol intake.

As I keep saying, when it comes to understanding the scientific literature it really is a matter of “reader beware.” It’s easy to find papers supporting one’s pet obsession if you are not critical and sensible with your literature searches. And it is important not to take at face value the claims of activists who clearly rely on confirmation bias when they explore the literature.

Poor peer-review – a case study

daigram

“Peer-review” status is often used to endorse scientific papers cherry-picked because they support a bias.

Many scientists are not impressed with the peer-review processes scientific journals use. Like democracy, this peer-review is better than all the available alternatives but it certainly doesn’t guarantee published scientific papers are problem-free.

Sure, peer-reviewed sources are better than others which have no quality control. But it is still a matter of “customer beware.” The intelligent users of scientific literature must do their own filtering – make their own critical judgements of the likely reliability of reported scientific findings.

Despite this people often use the “peer-reviewed” description to endorse published finding (especially if they confirm their own biases) without any critical assessment. This happens a lot in on-line debates of “controversial” issues.

Here I will go through the details of peer-review of a recently published paper which anti-fluoride activists are endorsing and promoting, but others are critcising. The paper is:

Malin, A. J., & Till, C. (2015). Exposure to fluoridated water and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder prevalence among children and adolescents in the United States: an ecological association. Environmental Health, 14.

I have discussed this paper in recent posts (see More poor-quality research promoted by anti-fluoride activists and ADHD linked to elevation not fluoridation). The journal, Environmental Health, has a transparent peer-review process which provides access to the names and reports of the reviewers. This reveals problems with the review process in this case. Below I discuss the responsibility of the authors, reviewers and the journal for the problems with this paper and its reported findings.

Authors’ responsibilities

The authors are clearly committed to a pet theory that fluoride is a neurotoxicant which could contribute to ADHD prevalence. Nothing wrong with that – we all feel committed to our hypotheses. We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t. But the best way to produce evidence for a hypothesis is to test it in a way that could prove it wrong.

In this case the authors found a correlation between ADHD prevalence in US states and the amount of community water fluoridation in each state. Trouble is, one can find just as good a correlation, or even a better correlation, with many other criteria for which state prevalence statistics are available. I listed a few in  ADHD linked to elevation not fluoridation. Some of these factors are also correlated with community water fluoridation suggesting the correlation reported by Malin and Till (2015) may be deceptive.

A proper test of the fluoridation hypothesis would include considering the effect of including such confounders together with fluoridation in their statistical analysis. Malin and Till (2015) did include one other criteria – the median household income for 1992 – but did not include any others. I find this surprising because they acknowledged ADHD results from interaction of genetic and environmental factors. While fluoridation is not usually considered a relevant factor things like smoking and premature births are and there is conflicting evidence about the role of economic factors like poverty and income.

In my article  ADHD linked to elevation not fluoridation I showed ADHD prevalence is better explained by a few of these factors without any input from water fluoridation.

I can’t help feeling the limited consideration of confounding factors results from a desire to protect the fluoridation hypothesis and therefore not test it properly.

Reviewers responsibilities

Again, such a desire is only human. But reviewers should have picked this up during their own considerations.

Interestingly, only one of the two reviewers raised possibility other confounders – specifically lead levels. This is of course valid as lead is a recognised neurotoxicant – but why did none of the reviewers question why other factors like smoking, premature births and social or regional factors were not considered?

I believe that is because both reviewers had research interests directed at chemical toxicity and not ADHD or similar mental characteristics. A matter of someone with a hammer only seeing nails.

The reviewers and their research interests are:
Marc Weisskopf whose reviews are available here and here.

“Some examples of my current work are exploring how exposure to, e.g., lead, manganese, and air pollution affect cognitive function and psychiatric symptoms; how exposure to Agent Orange and other herbicides used in Vietnam relate to the development of PD; and how formaldehyde and lead exposure relate to the development of ALS.”

Anna Choi whose review is here.

“Dr Choi’s research focuses on the effects of environmental exposures on health outcomes. She has been studying the birth cohorts in the Faroe Islands where exposures to environmental chemicals including mercury, PCBs, and PFCs are increased due to traditional marine diets. In addition, she also studies the effects of the contaminants on cardiovascular function and type 2 diabetes among the Faroese septuagenarians. She is also actively involved in the research on the impact of nutrients as possible negative confounders that may have caused an underestimation of methylmercury toxicity. Dr Choi’s other research interests include studying the adverse effects of fluoride exposure in children.”

Why were reviewers with a wider research experience not chosen? This journal allows authors to propose suitable reviewers themselves. Or the reviewers may have been chose by the associate editor handling this paper – Prof David Bellinger. His research focuses on the neurotoxicity of metabolic and chemical insults in children. So again it may just be the blinkered view of someone whose research background stressed the role of neurotoxicants rather than other factors likely to influence ADHD prevalence.

The journal’s responsibility

I noticed that one of the two chief editors (who have final say over acceptance of submitted papers) of this journal is Prof Philippe Grandjean. He himself has been actively promoting the idea that fluoride is a neurotoxicant purely on the evidence of the metareview of Choi et al (2012). Yes he is a coauthor of that review and Choi is one of the reviewers of the Malin and Till paper. The review of Choi et al (2012) related to areas of mainly China where fluoride concentrations are higher than used in community water fluoridation. Areas where endemic fluorosis is common.

I have to wonder if Grandjean’s well-known position on fluoride and community water fluoridation was a consideration in choosing this journal for publication.

Others have commented that the journal Environmental Health is considered low-quality based on its low impact factor. I do not know the area well enough to pass judgement myself. However, I notice that the journal charges authors for publishing their paper (£1290/$2020/€1645 for each article accepted for publication.) This sort of charge, associated with poor quality peer-review makes me suspicious. I have commented on these sort of journal before in my post Peer review, shonky journals and misrepresenting fluoride science.

Conclusions

This is one example of peer-review and paper acceptance which brings into question the idea of using  publication and peer-review as endorsement of a study’s   quality. I am sure this is not an isolated case. Even with the best of intentions journal editors and reviewers are limited by their own areas of expertise. Journal publication and peer-review is a far from perfect process – even if it is preferable to current alternatives.

Unfortunately activists will promote poor quality studies like this by blindly using the study’s peer-review status.

The intelligent reader should beware of such blind endorsements. Knowing the human foibles which exist in the research and publication processes such a reader will consider the contents of the paper and not rely on peer-review status. They will consider the evidence and conclusions critically. And if they don’t have enough background to make their own critical assessment they will consider the views of others with the required expertise and not blindly accepting what political activists tell them.

Footnote

Just came across this article referring to peer-review problems in journals published by BioMed Central – Major publisher retracts 43 scientific papers amid wider fake peer-review scandal.

BioMed Central publishes the Journal Environmental Health discussed in this post. I am not suggesting this paper was part of the peer-review racket discussed in the article. But the news item does highlight the point I am making that intelligent readers need to consider published scientific papers carefully and critically and not blindly rely on “peer-review” endorsement.

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ADHD linked to elevation not fluoridation

Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is more likely linked to residential altitude than community water fluoridation (CWF). This finding calls into question a recent paper claiming ADHD is linked to CWF. A paper that is being heavily promoted on social media at the moment by anti-fluoridation groups.

I discussed problems with that paper, (Malin & Till, 2015) in my article More poor-quality research promoted by anti-fluoride activists. Now I have taken my critique further by making my own exploratory investigation of likely influences on the prevalence of ADHD in US states using the approach of Malin & Till,(2015). Except I did not limit my investigation to CWF  data but also included state prevalence data for other likely influences on mental health.

ADHD linked to elevation

Elevation One of the best correlations with ADHD state prevalence I found was with elevation data for each state. It’s a negative correlation – the higher you go the lower the prevalence of ADHD This figure shows the correlation of ADHD state prevalence in 2011 with mean elevation for the 51 states. It is statistically significant with a correlation coefficient (r) of -0.5 and significance (p) of 0.00.

Fluoridation-2010For comparison, the similar correlation of ADHD state prevalence in 2011 with prevalence of CWF in 2010, while significant, has a correlation coefficient of +0.32 and significance of 0.02. However, the correlation with CWF is not significant in a multiple regression with elevation – see below.

Other factors worth considering

My exploratory statistical analysis showed a number of other factors significantly linked to ADHD with correlations similar to, or higher than, CWF. Images for the data and a table of correlation coefficients and their significance are shown below.

The correaltion of ADHD state prevalence in 2011 with home ownership and % living in poverty are better than with CWF. These correlations are positive – the prevalence increases with % home ownership and % of people living in poverty. I guess it is hardly surprising that mental health problems would increase with the amount of poverty. But perhaps in the US home ownership is also not conducive to mental health?

Home-Poverty

The correlations of ADHD state prevalence with educational attainment (Bachelors degree) 2009 and Per Capita personal income 2010 were similar to that with CWF. These correlations are negative – I guess its easy to understand that higher incomes and better education is conducive to better mental health (lower prevalence of ADHD).

Education-Income

over-65

The correlation of ADHD state prevalence with the proportion of the sate’s population older than 65 was also similar to that for CWF. The correlation is positive and one can only speculate on reasons for the increase of ADHD prevalence as the proportion of older people increases.

The table below summarises correlation coefficients (r) and statistical significance (p) for the figures above.

Correlation of ADHD state prevalence with a range of factors

State data Correlation coefficient (r) Statistical significance (p)
Mean elevation -0.50 0.009
CWF 2010 % +0.32 0.022
Home ownersip % +0.38 0.005
Poverty % +0.37 0.007
Education (% Bachelor’s degree) -0.35 0.011
Per capita income ($) -0.32 0.022
Age over 65 % +0.30 0.031

Multiple regressions

CWF in 2010 is correlated with mean elevation – correlation coefficient r=-0.43 and significance p=0.002 – suggesting these are not independent variables. (CWF in 1992 was similarly highly correlated with mean elevation.) Perhaps Malin and Till (2015) only found a correlation of ADHD with CWF because they are both related to mean elevation.

Multiple regression analysis suggests this is the case. The statisitically significant factors were mean elevation (p=0.001), home ownership (p=0.000) and poverty (p=0.005). The contribution of CWF in 2010 was not statistically significant in this multiple regression (p=0.587) as were most of the other factors I considered.

Malin and Till (2015) use the CWF for 1992 in most of their comparisons. My analysis shows this has a better correlation with ADHD prevalence in 2011 than CWF for any other year (r=0.45 cf 0.32 for CWF in 2010). It seems strange to use 20 year old data in  a model predicting ADHD prevalence for 2011 so I used more recent data for my exploratory analysis. However, in a multiple regression the contribution from CWF in 1992 was still not statistically significant (p= 0.158).

Conclusion

We should be careful of conclusions arising from such exploratory investigations. Firstly the obvious – correlation is not causation. But secondly the choice of data  is crucial.

Malin and Till (2015) chose to consider CWF prevalence as the main factor influencing ADHD prevalence. They did also include socioeconomic status (SES) as a secondary factor.  However, my analysis shows a number of other factors which could equally be considered. And when they are considered in multiple regressions the contribution from CWF is not statistically significant.

modelThe model used by Malin and Till (2015) using CWF in 1992 and SES in 1992 explained only 31% of the variance of ADHD prevalence in 2011. The corresponding firgures for ADHD prevalence in 2003 and 2007 were 24% and 22%.) But using a model for the influence of mean elevation, home ownership and poverty only (no CWF included) I was able to predict the state prevalence of ADHD in 2011 as shown in this figure. This accounts for 48% of the variance and has a significance of p= 0.000. Perhaps further exploration of the available data could produce an even better model but the key point here is that CWF does not contribute anything once mean elevation is included.

I do not think Malin and Till (2015) are justified in drawing the conclusion that CWF influences ADHD. Their mistaken conclusion has arisen from their limited choice of data considered for the exploratory analysis. That in itself seems to have resulted from a bias inherent in their hypothesis that “fluoride is a widespread neurotoxin.”

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More poor-quality research promoted by anti-fluoride activists

Anti-fluoridation propagandists must think all their Christmases have come at once. They at last have a “peer-reviewed” scientific paper they can claim supports their position. What’s more, it is the second such paper to appear in the last month.

But they really are resorting to arguments of quantity (2 papers) over quality. This new paper claiming a link between community water fluoridation (CWF) and Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is of just as poor quality as the earlier one claiming a link with hypothyroidism. Both papers are speculative, ignore other relevant factors, and “prove” nothing.

I discussed the hypothyroidism paper in the article Paper claiming water fluoridation linked to hypothyroidism slammed by experts. The new ADHD paper is:

Malin, A. J., & Till, C. (2015). Exposure to fluoridated water and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder prevalence among children and adolescents in the United States: an ecological association. Environmental Health, 14.

Here are my thoughts on this paper.

Exploratory investigation – correlation not causation

The authors have simply taken existing online data and searched for a statistically signficant relationship. They have explored the limited data sets used – not attempted to prove an effect. After all, correlation does not prove causation – the graph below shows an example of how correlation can often produce meaningless results.

The data sets Malin and Till (2015) used are both from the USA Centers fo disease Control (CDC).

  1. State-based attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) prevalence (Visser et al., 2014);
  2. Numbers of people receiving fluoridated water from public water supplies in each state obtained from the CDC.

Note, they did not use data for individual children exhibiting symptoms of ADHD  determined by  a health professional. The data was from random surveys “in which parents were contacted via telephone and asked about the emotional and physical well-being of a randomly selected child from their household.” Similarly they did not use data for dietary intake of fluoride by individual children but used “the percentage of the U.S. population on public water systems that receives optimally fluoridated drinking water.”

They have assumed these data are reliable proxies for occurrence of ADHD and fluoride dietary intake. But the data could represent other factors as well.

For example, parental reporting of ADHD could differ from state to state because of differences in parental educational levels and ideological attitudes. People in  different sates may not have the same level of knowledge, awareness or acceptance of such behaviours. Malin and Till themselves acknowledge ADHD reporting is higher for parents with a high school education than for parents who did not graduate high school (Visser (2014). Parental education levels are likely to vary from state to state.

The availability of CWF can be dependent on the size of urban areas for both technical reasons and because of  recognised willingness for innovation from large and high status city leaders (Crain, 1996) so that the state prevalence used could be acting as a proxy for the distribution of urban areas of different sizes, and the relative urban/rural distributions in different sates. A correlation may indicate nothing more than a relationship between city sizes and parental education.

The authors themselves warn their study has limitations, saying it is:

“an ecological design that broadly categorized fluoride exposure as exposed versus non-exposed rather than collecting information related to concentration of fluoride and patterns and frequency of exposure or outcome at the individual level. Future research could explore the relationship between exposure to fluoridated water and the occurrence of ADHD at the individual level.”

And, again, we should always keep in mind that correlation does not prove causation.

The starting hypothesis

Inevitably any serious exploratory investigation should start with a working hypothesis. As psychologists the authors are presumably interested in ADHD and its causes. But why investigate state prevalence of CWF instead of any of the other factors indicated in this condition. In fact they list a range of candidates from arsenic and lead to food additives and food colouring. Granted, they saw CWF as a field ripe for plucking as they say fluoride “has received virtually no attention in the ADHD literature.” But I would have expected them to at least include these other known factors as confounders in their study.

I think the answer lies with their biased reading of the literature. They start with the claim that fluoride is a “widespread environmental neurotoxin,”  but only really cite Grandjean and Landrigan (2014) and the closely-related meta-analysis of Choi et al., (2012) to support this claim. I have discussed those papers and their problems in  Repeating bad science on fluoride and Controversial IQ study hammered in The Lancet. A major problem with that work is it involved areas of endemic fluorosis where fluoride intake is high so it is not directly relevant to CW. In fact, the authors’ bias is indicated by the fact they did not cite Broadbent et al., (2014) which showed no neurotoxic effects of CWF. Broadbent et al.’s paper is directly relevant to CWF – Choi et al.’s is not. (I discussed the differences as indicated by dental fluorosis data in my article Water fluoridation and dental fluorosis – debunking some myths

I feel this omission indicates that the authors resort to the special pleading of anti-fluoride activists in the citations they used for justifying their starting hypothesis. The also rely on studies of rats fed very high levels of fluoride, such as that of  Mullenix et al., (1995), and then use her weak argument to claim relevance to CWF by comparing  rat blood plasma F levels to those for humans ingesting high levels of fluoride. (See my article Peer review of an anti-fluoride “peer review” for a discussion on this). Similarly, although acknowledging the high F intake levels of most of the studies reviewed by Choi et al., (2012), they excuse this by referring to the one study with low levels (0.88 mg/L) – ignoring the fact this was a one and a half page article in a newsletter describing measurements in an iodine deficient area. In this study (Lin, et al., 1991) children from low iodine areas were compared with a group from another area that had received iodine supplementation. About 15% of the children suffered mental retardation, 69% of these exhibited subclinical endemic cretinism. The effect of iodine supplementation was clear, the effect of fluoride not so clear. (See Peer review of an anti-fluoride “peer review” for further discussion of this).

So, I think the justification for their starting hypothesis is hardly objective

“Natural” vs “artificial” fluoride

Despite  problems with justification for their hypothesis they did find a significant positive relationship between the US state prevalence of parent-reported ADHD in children and the state proportion of water supplies with optimum levels of fluoride. Again, not a proof of their hypothesis, but interesting data to consider nonetheless. They found inclusion of socio-economic status data improved the relationship but did not consider other relevant confounding factors like parental education and exposure to relevant chemicals.

In contrast, the relationship they found between ADHD prevalence and natural fluoride prevalence (at optimum level or above) was negative and statistically signficant. This actually conflicts with their starting hypothesis of chemical neurotoxicity based on the work of Choi et al., (2014) and Grandjean and Landrigen (2014). While they concede the data really doesn’t allow a conclusion they suggest it could result from the ADHD effect being specific to “fluoridation chemicals” and not fluoride itself.

This leads them to suggest a theoretical “pathway” for CWF contributing to ADHD – the corrosion of lead-bearing plumbing by fluorosilicic acid. Trouble is this ignores the well established fact that fluorosilicates used in CWF decompose to form silica and the hydrated fluoride anion when diluted in water. Malin and Till seem oblivious to work showing this and rely instead on citation of the poor quality work of Masters and Coplan to support this “pathway.” Another example of their citation bias.

But their proposal does raise an important question. Given that lead is one suggested cause of ADHD why did they not concentrate their exploratory analysis of data for lead intake by children in different states, rather than CWF prevalence? Or at least include lead levels as confounders in their statistical analysis.

The thyroid story again

Their second suggested “pathway” is via suppression of thyroid gland activity by fluoride. But, again, this hypothesis does raise the question of other causes, in particular iodine deficiency. (See my discussion of Peckham’s paper – Paper claiming water fluoridation linked to hypothyroidism slammed by experts – for more on this). If this was part of their starting hypothesis then why not consider data for state prevalence of iodine deficient diets of children? Or or include this as a confounder in the analysis?

I find it interesting that despite declaring a starting hypothesis based on the chemical toxicity claims of Choi et al., (2012) and Grandjean and Landrigen (2014), Malin and Till have not proposed any theoretical “pathway” involving direct neurotoxicity of fluoride itself to explain their result. This makes their unwillingness to consider other relevant confounding factors even more obvious.

Conclusions

As I wrote above correlation is not causation  and this study does not “prove” anything. The observed “link”could represent a number of other relationships which are not directly associated with CWF. The analysis also suffers from a lack of consideration of obvious confounding factors.

I believe this is the sort of problem that arises when researchers have a committment to a starting hypothesis and peer review systems are inadequate. Such studies are a problems when published because ideologically motivated activists love to cherry-pick them to claim “scientific support” for their cause. This is not helped when the researchers themselves climb on the activist bandwagon and attempt to claim more for their findings that is really justified.

I think Malin and Till have done this with the press release from their department – Fluoride in tap water associated with ADHD in children, researchers find. It is one thing to say:

“Our findings showed that artificial fluoridation prevalence in 1992 predicted ADHD prevalence in 2003, 2007 and 2011 among children and adolescents in the United States, and that was after controlling for median household income.”

But the careful claim their “findings showed” a “prediction” is far too easily seen as proof in the mind of the lay-reader. Worse, they draw unwarranted conclusions from their limited work:

“As citizens of Toronto, living in an artificially fluoridated community, I think we need to ask ourselves whether this is still a worthwhile practice.”

One can only pose such questions in the context of an objective assessment of their own work together with other research of possible harmful and beneficial effects of CWF. I think their biased choice of citations in this paper shows they are not capable of doing this.

On the other hand reviews such as the recent NZ Fluoridation Review, Health effects of water fluoridation : A review of the scientific evidence, have done this. Community leaders should be going to such sources for their information and not rely on cherry-picked poor quality studies like Malin and Till (2015) which will be promoted to them by anti-fluoride propagandists and activists.

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