This is another article in my critique of the presentation Paul Connett prepared to present to a meeting at Parliament in February.
I deal with his coverage of the studies of IQ effects where community water fluoridation (CWF) is used. There are now actually three such studies (Broadbent et al. 2015, Barberio et al. 2017 and Aggeborn & Öhman 2016), but Connett pretends there is only one – the Broadbent et al. (2015) New Zealand study.
Maybe because it was the first one to provide evidence challenging his extrapolation of the fluoride/IQ studies (see The 52 IQ studies used by anti-fluoride campaigners) results in areas of endemic fluorosis to areas where CWF is used. It is also the study which seems to have resulted in the most hostility from anti-fluoride campaigners.
So here I will just be sticking with his criticism of the New Zealand study Broadbent et al (2015):
Slide 76 from Paul Connett’s presentation prepared for his February meeting at parliament buildings
Broadbent’s findings do not “negate all other human studies”
Paul allows emotion to get the better of him as no one is suggesting this at all. The studies Connett refers to are all from areas of endemic fluorosis (see The 52 IQ studies used by anti-fluoride campaigners), not from areas of CWF.
Broadbent et al (2015) simply concluded that their “findings do not support the assertion that fluoride in the context of CWF programmes is neurotoxic.” That is a modest statement and Broadbent et al. (2015) simply do not draw any conclusions about the studies Connett relies on. But, of course, Connett is upset because this and similar studies just do not support his attempt to extrapolate results from areas of endemic fluorosis to areas of CWF.
The health problems suffered by people in areas of endemic fluorosis are real and it is right they should be studied and attempts made to alleviate them. But this has absolutely nothing to do with CWF.
“Fatally flawed” charge is itself fatally flawed
Again, Paul has allowed emotions to get the upper hand. It is possible, and necessary, to critique published papers – but critiques should be evidence-based and realistic. Paul’s “fatally flawed” charge (slides 77 & 78) simply displays how much this paper has put his nose out of joint.
But let’s look at the specific “flaws” Paul (and other critics associated with the Fluoride Action Network) claim.
The two villages mindset: Paul alleges that the Broadbent et al (2015) study “essentially compared two groups.” He is stuck in the mindset of most of his 52 studies from areas of endemic fluorosis (see Fluoride & IQ: The 52 Studies). The mindset of simply comparing the IQ levels of children in a village suffering endemic fluorosis with the IQ levels of children in a village not suffering endemic fluorosis. This simple approach can identify statistically significant differences between the villages but provides little information on causes. For example, most of these studies used drinking water fluoride as a parameter but there could be a whole range of other causes related to health problems of fluorosis.
Professor Richie Poulton, current Director of the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Research Unit
In contrast, Broadbent et al. (2015) used “General Linear models to assess the association between CWF and IQ in childhood and adulthood, after adjusting for potential confounders.” The statistical analysis involved includes accounting for a range of possible risk-modifying factors besides CWF., This was possible because the study was part of the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study. This is a highly reputable long-running cohort study of 1037 people born in 1972/1973 with information covering many areas.
The fluoride tablets argument: Connett and other critics always raise this issue – the fact that “In New Zealand during the 1970s, when the study children were young, F supplements were often prescribed to those living in unfluoridated areas.” Often they will go further to claim that all the children in the unfluoridated area of this study were receiving fluoride tablets – something they have no way of knowing.
But the fact remains that fluoride tablets were included in the statistical analysis. No statistically significant effect was seen for them. Overlap of use of fluoride tablets with residence in fluoridated or unfluoridated areas will have occurred and their influence would be reflected in the results found. Presumably, the effect would be to increase the confidence intervals. As the critics, Menkes et al. (2014), say “comparing groups with overlapping exposure thus compromises the study’s statistical power to determine the single effect of CWF.” I agree. But this does not negate the findings which are reported with the appropriate confidence intervals (see below).
The point is that the simplistic argument that effects of fluoride tablets were ignored is just not correct. Their effect is reflected in the results obtained.
Potential confounders: Many poor quality studies have ignored possible confounders, or considered only a few. This is a general problem with these sort of studies – and even when attempts are made to include all that the researchers consider important a critic can always claim there may be others – especially if they do not like the results. Claims of failing to consider confounders can often be simply the last resort of armchair critics.
In this case, there is no actual reported association to be confounded (unlike my identification of this problem with the Malin & Till 2015 ADHD study – see Perrott 2017). However, Osmunson et al. (2016) specifically raised possibilities of confounding by lead, manganese, mother’s IQ and rural vs urban residence. Mekes et al. (2014) also raised the rural vs urban issue as well as a possible effect from breastfeeding reducing fluoride intake by children in fluoridated areas. In their response, Broadbent et al (2015b & 2016) reported that a check showed no significant effect of lead or distance from the city centre and pointed out that manganese levels were too low to have an effect. Broadbent et al (2015b) also reported no significant breastfeeding-fluoride interaction occurred.
Numbers involved: Connett claims the study was fatally flawed because “it had very few controls: 991 lived in the fluoridated area, and only 99 in non-fluoridated” (Slide 77). But the numbers are simply given by the longer term Dunedin study themselves – they weren’t chosen by Broadbent and his co-workers. That is the real world and is hardly a “fatal flaw.”
The 95% confidence intervals
Yes, statisticians always love to work with the large numbers but in the real world, we take what we have. Smaller numbers mean less statistical confidence in the result – but given that Broadbent et al (2015) provides the results, together with confidence intervals, it is silly to describe this as fatally flawed. These were the results given in the paper for the parameter estimate of the factors of interest:
||95% Confidence interval
|Area of residence
||-3.22 to 3.20
|Fluoride toothpaste use
||-1.03 to 2.43
||-0.38 to 3.49
Connett did not refer to the confidence intervals reported by Broadbent et al (2015). However, Grandjean and Choi (2015) did describe them as “wide” – probably because they were attempting to excuse the extrapolation of “fluoride as a potential neurotoxic hazard” from areas of endemic fluorosis to CWF.
The argument over confidence intervals can amount to straw clutching – a “yes but” argument which says “the effect is still there but is small and your study was not large enough to find it.” That argument can be never ending but it is worth noting that Aggeborn & Öhman (2016) made a similar comment about wide confidence intervals for all fluoride/IQ studies, including that of Broadbent et al. (2015). Aggeborn & Öhman (2016) had a very large sample (almost 82,000 were involved in the cognitive ability comparisons) and reported confidence intervals of -0.18 to 1.03 IQ points (compared with -3.22 to 3.20 IQ points reported by Broadbent et al 2015). Based on this they commented, “we are confident to claim that we have estimated a zero-effect on cognitive ability.”
The “yes but” argument about confidence intervals may mean one is simply expressing faith in an effect so small as to be meaningless.
Total fluoride exposure should have been used: Connett says (slide 77) “Broadbent et al did not use the proper measure of fluoride exposure. They should have used total F exposure. Instead, they used only exposure from fluoridated water.” Osmunson et al. (2016) make a similar point, claiming that the study should not have considered drinking water fluoride concentration but total fluoride intake. They go so far as to claim “the question is not whether CWF reduces IQ, but whether or not total fluoride intake reduces IQ.”
This smacks of goalpost moving – especially as the argument has specifically been about drinking water fluoride and most of the studies they rely on from areas of endemic fluorosis specifically used that parameter.
In their response to this criticism Broadbent et al (2016) calculated estimates for total daily fluoride intake and used them in their analysis which “resulted in no meaningful change of significance, effect size, or direction in our original findings.”
It’s interesting to note that Connett and his co-workers appear to miss completely the point about “wide” confidence intervals made by Grandjean and Choi (2015). Instead, they have elevated their argument to the claim that fluoride intake is almost the same in both fluoridated and unfluoridated areas so that any study will not be able to detect a difference in IQ. Essentially they are claiming that we are all going to suffer IQ deficits whether we live in fluoridated or unfluoridated areas.
This is the central argument of their paper – Hirzy et al (2016). However, the whole argument relies on their own estimates of dietary intakes – a clear example where motivated analysts will make the assumptions that fit and support their own arguments. This argument also fails to explain why the Dunedin study found lower tooth decay in fluoridated areas.
Last time I checked the anti-fluoride campaigners, including Connett, were still focusing on CWF – fluoride in drinking water. One would think if they really believed their criticism that they would have given up that campaign and instead devoted their energies to the total fluoride intake alone.
All studies have limitations and of course, Broadbent et al. (2015) is no exception. However, the specific criticisms made by Connett and his fellow critics do not stand up to scrutiny. Most have been responded to and shown wrong – mind you this does not stop these critics from continuing to repeat them and disregard the responses.
I believe the relatively wide confidence intervals could be a valid criticism – although it does suggest a critic who is arguing for very small effects. A critic who may always find the confidence intervals still exclude their very small effect – no matter how large the study is.
In effect, the narrow confidence intervals reported by Aggeborn & Öhman (2016) should put that argument to rest for any rational person.
Aggeborn, L., & Öhman, M. (2016). The Effects of Fluoride In The Drinking Water.
Barberio, A. M., Quiñonez, C., Hosein, F. S., & McLaren, L. (2017). Fluoride exposure and reported learning disability diagnosis among Canadian children: Implications for community water fluoridation. Can J Public Health, 108(3),
Broadbent, J. M., Thomson, W. M., Ramrakha, S., Moffitt, T. E., Zeng, J., Foster Page, L. A., & Poulton, R. (2015). Community Water Fluoridation and Intelligence: Prospective Study in New Zealand. American Journal of Public Health, 105(1), 72–76.
Broadbent, J. M., Thomson, W. M., Moffitt, T., Poulton, R., & Poulton, R. (2015b). Health effects of water fluoridation: a response to the letter by Menkes et al. NZMJ, 128(1410), 73–74.
Broadbent, J. M., Thomson, W. M., Moffitt, T. E., & Poulton, R. (2016). BROADBENT ET AL. RESPOND. American Journal of Public Health, 106(2), 213–214. https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2015.302918
Grandjean, P., Choi, A. (2015). Letter: Community Water Fluoridation and Intelligence. Am J Pub Health, 105(4).
Hirzy, J. W., Connett, P., Xiang, Q., Spittle, B. J., & Kennedy, D. C. (2016). Developmental neurotoxicity of fluoride: a quantitative risk analysis towards establishing a safe daily dose of fluoride for children. Fluoride, 49(December), 379–400.
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.
Menkes, D. B., Thiessen, K., & Williams, J. (2014). Health effects of water fluoridation — how “ effectively settled ” is the science? NZ Med J, 127(1407), 84–86.
Osmunson, B., Limeback, H., & Neurath, C. (2016). Study incapable of detecting IQ loss from fluoride. American Journal of Public Health, 106(2), 212–2013.
Perrott, K. W. (2017). Fluoridation and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder – a critique of Malin and Till ( 2015 ). Br Dent J.