Tag Archives: IQ

What do these mother-child studies really say about fluoridation?

A list of indicators of bad science – many of these are found in articles promoted by anti-fluoride activists.

Anti-fluoride activists have been pouring money into a scaremongering campaign warning pregnant women not to drink fluoridated water. They claim fluoride will lower the IQ of their future child.

Fluoride Free NZ (FFNZ)  launched this campaign on the back of the recent publication of Canadian research on fluoride intake by pregnant women and child IQ (see Ground Breaking New Study – Top Medical Journal – Fluoridated Water Lowers Kids’ IQs). Now they are responding to criticisms of this paper by claiming it is supported by other research and claim a list of 6 papers support their claim that pregnant women drinking fluoridated water may be harming the IQ of their children.

Image used by FFNZ as part of their appeal for finance to support billboards and newspaper advertising promoting their false scaremongering claim.

None of these studies actually support the FFNZ claim. Let’s consider each of the six studies listed by the Fluoride Action Network (FAN) – but first, look at this data from the “New Study – Top Journal” mentioned by FFNZ:

This is from Table 1 in  Green et al., (2019). There are no statistically significant differences in the IQ o children whose mothers lived in either fluoridated or nonfluoridated areas during their pregnancy. So the FFNZ claim is completely false.

The Fluoride Action Network (FAN) Bulletin Several In Utero Fluoride/IQ Studies Should Provoke A Nation-Wide Fluoridation Moratorium initially list 5 studies but expanded this to 6 studies in an article posted by Ellen Connett the same day – The 6 Mother-Offspring Fluoride Studies. Here is the list (descriptions are from the FAN articles):

  • Green et al.,  (2019). Largest study with 512 mother-offspring. Lower IQ in children 3- 4 years of age.
  • Bashash et al., (2017). Longest study. 299 mother-offspring pairs in Mexico. Lower IQ in children 4 and 6-12 years of age.
  • Thomas et al., (2018). 401 mother-offspring pairs in Mexico. Lower IQ in children 1-3 years of age Only the abstract has been published.
  • Valdez Jiménez (2017). Lower IQ between the ages of 3-15 months with 65 mother-offspring pairs in Mexico.
  • Li et al., (2004). Significant differences in the neonatal behavioral neurological assessment score in 91 offspring aged 1-3 days old.
  • Chang et al., (2017). Reported significant differences in the mental development index and psychomotor development index of the offspring at 3, 6, 9, and 12 months of age.

I will consider these in three groups and include some relevant theses.

The Chinese studies from areas of endemic fluorosis

These describe data from areas of endemic fluorosis in China. They are irrelevant to community water fluoridation as the drinking water fluoride concentrations are much higher and people in these areas suffer a range of health problems including severe skeletal and dental fluorosis. Remember, the optimum levels of fluoride recommended for community water fluoridation are generally below 1 mg/L and WHO recommends drinking water concentrations should be lower than 1.5 mg/L.

People in areas of endemic fluorosis suffer a range of health problems

Li, J., Yao, L., Shao, Q. L., & Wu, C. Y. (2008). Effects of high fluoride level on neonatal neurobehavioral development. Fluoride, 41(2), 165–170.

This is one of the generally poor quality studies FAN got translated to assist their campaign. They are generally published in Fluoride, an anti-fluoride journal.

It compared children from villages with drinking water concentrations of  1.7–6.0 mg/L with a control group from villages with drinking water concentrations of 0.5–1.0 mg/L.

Chang A, Shi Y, Sun H, Zhang L. (2017) Analysis on the Effect of Coal-Burning Fluorosis on the Physical Development and Intelligence Development of Newborns Delivered by Pregnant Women with Coal-Burning Fluorosis.

Another one of the poor quality papers  FAN got translated but they have made only the abstract and a brief abstract available on their site. I cannot find a full test or even abstract anywhere else. It compares two groups:

“A total of 68 newborns delivered by pregnant women from coal-burning endemic fluorosis areas in this region were selected as an observation group, and 50 full-term newborns delivered by normal healthy pregnant women were selected as a control group. “

Both papers report statistically significant differences in some measurements between the two groups but that is to be expected for areas of endemic fluorosis and especially where coal-burning creates health problems. Of course, this is all irrelevant to community water fluoridation as only the control groups are likely to be drinking water with similar fluoride concentrations.

Mexican study from an area of endemic fluorosis

The paper is:

Valdez Jiménez, L., López Guzmán, O. D., Cervantes Flores, M., Costilla-Salazar, R., Calderón Hernández, J., Alcaraz Contreras, Y., & Rocha-Amador, D. O. (2017). In utero exposure to fluoride and cognitive development delay in infants . Neurotoxicology

This study found a relationship of child cognitive deficits with maternal prenatal urinary fluoride but, again, it is not relevant to community water fluoridation. The authors acknowledge that the study was done in an area of endemic fluorosis.  About 90% of the drinking water samples in the study contained fluoride above the World Health recommended maximum of 1.5 mg/l and the Fluoride in the mothers’ urine was also high – with the mean concentration for all the mothers of 1.9 mg/l  for the 1st trimester, 2.0 mg/l for the 2nd and 2.7 mg/l for the 3rd trimester. Urinary fluoride concentrations as high as 8.2 mg/l were found. This compares with a mean value for urinary F of 0.65 mg/L for pregnant women residents in areas with low levels of F in drinking water (0.4 to 0.8 mg/l – similar to that recommended in community water fluoridation).

I have written about this study in my post Premature births a factor in cognitive deficits observed in areas of endemic fluorosis? There I speculated that the effect of fluoride on cognitive deficits may be indirect because of the observede higher incidence of prematurity and low birth rate.

The Bashash study

I have separated these from the Green et al., (2019) study although they both report relationships between maternal prenatal urinary fluoride and the IQ of offspring and many of the authors are common to both studies  Bashash is the senior author on the paper reporting data from Mexico city and Green on the paper reporting data for Canada.

There are really three citations for this study. The main paper:

Bashash, M., Thomas, D., Hu, H., Martinez-Mier, E. A., Sanchez, B. N., Basu, N., … Hernández-Avila, M. (2017). Prenatal fluoride exposure and cognitive outcomes in children at 4 and 6–12 years of age in Mexico. Environmental Health Perspectives, 125(9), 8–10.

A conference poster:

Thomas, D., Sanchez, B., Peterson, K., Basu, N., Angeles Martinez-Mier, E., Mercado-Garcia, A., … Tellez-Rojo, M. M. (2018). OP V – 2 Prenatal fluoride exposure and neurobehavior among children 1–3 years of age in Mexico. Environmental Contaminants and Children’s Health, 75(Suppl 1), A10.1-A10. https://doi.org/10.1136/oemed-2018-ISEEabstracts.23

And Deena Thomas’s Ph. D. thesis which also reported data from the study:

Thomas, D. B. (2014). Fluoride exposure during pregnancy and its effects on childhood neurobehavior: a study among mother-child pairs from Mexico City, Mexico. University of Michigan.

The anti-fluoride activists have waxed lyrical about the reported negative relationship of child IQ with maternal prenatal urinary F concentrations but they are clutching at statistical straws as, in fact, the relationship is very weak – explaining only a few percent of the IQ variance. I explained this in my post Fluoride, pregnancy and the IQ of offspring, and described several other problems (correlation is not evidence of causation, information about the mothers is scant with no indication if they lived in areas of endemic fluorosis, possible important risk-modifying factors were not considered as confounders, urinary fluoride is not a good indicator of fluoride intake by individuals, and there was no association of child IQ to child urinary fluoride).

When data has this much scatter the marginal statistical significance of relationship are easily altered by tweaking the data. (Fig 3a from Bashash et al., 2017).

It is easy to be misled by marginal statistically significant relationships when considering data with such a high scatter. This is illustrated by the conclusions of one of the authors, Deena Thomas, in her Ph. D. thesis that:

“Neither maternal urinary or plasma fluoride was associated with offspring MDI scores” [page 37);

“This analysis suggests that maternal intake of fluoride during pregnancy does not have a strong impact on offspring cognitive development in the first three years of life.” [page 38];

“Maternal intake of fluoride during pregnancy does not have any measurable effects on cognition in early life.” [page 48].

Yet, in the conference poster  based on her thesis she concluded:

“Our findings add to our team’s recently published report on prenatal fluoride and cognition at ages 4 and 6–12 years by suggesting that higher in utero exposure to F has an adverse impact on offspring cognitive development that can be detected earlier, in the first three years of life.”

Her conclusions reported in her thesis are exactly the opposite of the conclusions reported in her conference poster!

I suggest in my article A conference paper on the maternal prenatal urinary fluoride/child IQ study has problems that the different conclusions in the poster resulted from the fact that at least 30 mother-child pairs were removed from the data set used in her thesis (the thesis consider 431 mother-child pairs but the poster considered only 401 pairs). Perhaps even some data pairs were added (the maximum urinary F value is higher in the smaller data set used for the poster).

In her thesis, Deena Thomas also reported: “concurrent urinary fluoride exposure has a strong positive impact on cognitive development among males aged 6-15 years.” [page 54]. The relationship was not significant for females. But the actual paper, Bashash et al., (2017), concluded “there was not a
clear, statistically significant association between contemporaneous children’s urinary fluoride . . . and IQ. “

I have discussed the Mexican maternal prenatal urinary fluoride- IQ study in more detail in the following articles:

A draft of my article critiquing the Bashash et al., (2017) paper, “Predictive accuracy of a model for child IQ based on maternal prenatal urinary fluoride concentration” is also available online. I have also discussed another paper from this study (Bashash et al., 2018) which reported a weak relationship of ADHD prevalence with maternal urinary fluoride in my article Fluoridation and ADHD: A new round of statistical straw clutching.

Green et al., paper/thesis

This study is actually the only one that included people exposed to community water fluoridation – hence the relevance of the data I presented in the introductory table which showed no effect. But the study it is basically the same as that of Bashash et al (2017) except it involved Canadian mother-child pairs and most of the criticism of Bashash et al., (2018)  are relevant to the Green et al., (2019) study which has been reported in the following forms:

Green, R., Lanphear, B., Hornung, R., Flora, D., Martinez-Mier, E. A., Neufeld, R., … Till, C. (2019). Association Between Maternal Fluoride Exposure During Pregnancy and IQ Scores in Offspring in Canada. JAMA Pediatrics, 1–9.

Green, R. (2018). Prenatal Fluoride Exposure and Neurodevelopmental Outcomes in a National Birth Cohort (MSc thesis, Graduate Program in Psychology York University Toronto, Ontario). 

My original critique included a conclusion that the reported negative relationship of child IQ with maternal prenatal urinary F concentration was extremely weak. I found that it explained only 1.3% of the child IQ variance using data extracted from the figures. Subsequently Rivka Green claimed an R-squared value of 4.7% which is still very low (we can reject her claim that it was “quite high” as simple promotion of her work).

For further discussion of the Green et al (2019) study see my articles:

A problem of self-promotion and confirmation bias

Science and the scientific literature are, of course, not immune to self-promotion and confirmation bais and I think the maternal urinary fluoride-child IQ studies show this. I discussed this in If at first you don’t succeed . . . statistical manipulation might help as well as pointing out that these scientific politics are amplified by activist propaganda.

This is a pity because such confirmation bias and self-promotion may result in important information being overlooked. I discussed this in  my article A more convincing take on prenatal maternal dietary effects on child IQ which referred to another paper from the Mexican maternal urinary fluoride study which showed a relationship of child IQ with maternal nutrition:

Malin, A. J., Busgang, S. A., Cantoral, A. J., Svensson, K., Orjuela, M. A., Pantic, I., … Gennings, C. (2018). Quality of Prenatal and Childhood Diet Predicts Neurodevelopmental Outcomes among Children in Mexico City. Nutrients, 10(8), 1093.

Again the relationships reported were weak, but the negative relationship of child IQ with poor prenatal maternal nutrition explains 11.2% of the variance in child IQ – much better than the data for prenatal maternal urinary fluoride (which explained only 3% of the variance).

Conclusions

So what do these mother-child studies say about community water fluoridation and IQ?

Well, nothing really – except that the only study which compared fluoridated and non-fluoridated areas showed absolutely no effect.

But this will not stop activists (and unfortunately self-promoting scientists and their institutions) from making unwarranted claims. Their propaganda relies on unsupported “authority” opinion and misrepresentation. This violates many of the rules in my first image above.

It tries to present correlation as proof of causation, misinterprets results, promotes unsupported conclusions, selectively reports the data and findings, and expands these unsupported conclusions way beyond the small sample sizes used.

This is just bad science!

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An evidence-based discussion of the Canadian fluoride/IQ study

Dr. Christopher Labos and Jonathan Jarry discuss the recent Canadian fluoride/IQ research. They provide an expert analysis of the paper and its problems. Click on image to go to podcast.

The critical debate about the recent Candian fluoride/IQ study is continuing. Dr. Christopher Labos and Jonathan Jarry of The Body Of Evidence group discussed the research in their recent Podcast. The subject is appropriate because, as their website says:

“The Internet allows fantasies to thrive, but your health (and wallet) should not be the target of nonsense. There is a body of evidence out there, and Dr. Christopher Labos and Jonathan Jarry are staring it right in the face.

Through a podcast, a shared blog, and videos (and even appearances on the radio and in person), they explore what reproducible evidence has to say on important medical topics, and how scientific thinking shouldn’t be the sole purview of researchers. The bickering is just the cherry on top.”

The discussion is in Podcast 053 – Smart Drugs and Fluoride. The section on the Canadian fluoride/IQ study starts at 30 minutes and is 10 minutes long.

It’s a very thorough discussion going into a range of problems with these sort of studies and problems with the particular study. It raises the issue of differing results obtained by similar studies (eg the Mexican study did not report differences between boys and girls although the Canadian study did see Paul Connett’s misrepresentation of maternal F exposure study debunked and other articles here). They also discuss important factors the Canadian study ignored

Clearly, there is a lot wrong with the Canadian study – or at least a lot of factors that a sensible reader should take into account.

An important issue is the ethics of publishing controversial studies like this. In particular, the authors should have been aware that their results would be used by anti-fluoride activists to scaremonger in their campaign against community water fluoridation (that is certainly happening in New Zealand). And the most effective scaremongering is raising fears about children. Christopher and Jonathan suggest that in such a situation the authors should have been responsible enough to do further work to eliminate doubts or at least present their findings in a more qualified way. The authors should have been more diligent considering the way their findings were going to be used by activists.

The fact that this was not done suggests to me that other factors, such as professional ambition and pressure form immediate peers and their institution came into play (see Politics of science – making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear).

They also finish with a discussion of the nature of IQ tests and suggest that the differences claimed by the researchers are rather meaningless given that the average IQ of the children in the study were above average.

There is a very strong message here for the non-specialist. In cases like this, one should never simply accept the initial claims because they can be highly motivated. Christopher and Jonathan recommend that non-specialists should wait several days for the more balanced views to be published. There are plenty of experts out there who can provide this balance – they just have to be given time to actually read the paper, work out what the data means and how that compares with the claims made by authors.

For other comments on the Candian fluoride/IQ research see:

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More expert comments on the Canadian fluoride-IQ paper

The Green et al (2019) fluoride/IQ is certainly controversial – as would be expected from its subject (see If at first you don’t succeed . . . statistical manipulation might help and Politics of science – making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear). Anti-fluoride campaigners have been actively promoting it as the best thing since sliced bread. But it has not received the same glorification from most experts.

The UK Science Media Centre published a list of reactions from experts (see expert reaction to study looking at maternal exposure to fluoride and IQ in children) and they are worth reading. Also, there are comments from Dr F. Perry Wilson presented in the video above.

Wilson raises some very valid criticisms, a few of which (such as the weakness of the reported relationship) I have dealt with. He also brings attention to how even that weak relationship appears to be strongly affected by extreme values (particularly the few high values for maternal urinary fluoride).

He says:

But as you can see from the scatter plot, the effect was really small—about 1.5 IQ points for moving between the 25th and 75th percentiles of urinary fluoride.”

This is from the data presented in the paper’s Table 2. This low value was not really discussed by the authors who instead promoted an effect of 4.5 IQ points using data covering the whole range, including the unrealistically high urinary F values.

I have already commented in the previous articles on how weak the child IQ – maternal Urinary Fluoride relationship is and how it has no predictive value (see If at first you don’t succeed . . . statistical manipulation might help and Politics of science – making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear). Also, as the mean IQ values for all children and separately for boys and girls are not affected by the residence of mothers in fluoridated and unfluoridated areas it is likely that even this weak relationship is anomalous.

However to return to Dr F. Perry  I have reproduced the transcript of his talk below as he does make a number of valid points worth considering.


Welcome to Impact Factor, your weekly dose of commentary on a new medical study. I’m Dr F. Perry Wilson.

Usually, as studies come across my desk, I say, “Oh, that one is interesting” and dig in to see if it’s worth spending a few minutes of your time on. This week, I saw this study appearing in JAMA Pediatrics and just thought, “Oh no.”

This is one of those studies that I just knew would blow up, and probably for the wrong reasons.

Despite robust evidence that fluoridation of water reduces the incidence of cavities in kids, it has long been a bugaboo of conspiracy buffs, ranging from General Jack D. Ripper to Alex Jones.

No one ever seems to complain about chlorinating water, but whatever.

In any case, the argument that fluoridation is a secret communist plot has never held water, but several prior medical studies have documented a link, however small, between fluoride exposure and lower IQ in children. But all of those prior studies were flawed in one way or another, most often because the exposure was orders of magnitude higher than what is seen in the fluoridated water supply.

Enter JAMA Pediatrics, with what is really the best study to date of the effect of fluoride on IQ. Five hundred and twelve mother-child pairs from Canada were recruited during pregnancy and followed until the kids were around 3-4 years of age. At three points during pregnancy, the moms had their urinary fluoride concentrations measured. These measurements were averaged, and the researchers report that moms with higher levels had kids with lower IQs.

This held up even after adjusting for city, maternal education, race, child sex, and a score that measures the quality of the home environment.

Yikes, right? Is fluoridation causing a process of “dumbening”? Is “dumbening” even a word?

Hold up. It’s caveat time.

First, this was not a randomized trial. No one was giving these moms fluoride or regulating what they drank, so confounders could be a major issue. I’m particularly worried about socioeconomic factors that may be linked to fluoridated water consumption and also children’s IQ.

But there’s potentially a bigger problem. The plausible mechanism for neurotoxicity of fluoride in utero is that blood fluoride crosses the placenta and gets into the fetus’ developing brain. Like this.


But blood fluoride wasn’t measured. Urine fluoride was. Now, as a nephrologist, this piques my interest because urine fluoride is not a perfect proxy for blood fluoride.


The authors know this. They realize, for example, that more dilute urine will have a lower fluoride concentration, and they “correct” this problem by dividing urinary fluoride by urine specific gravity.


But this introduces a new variable. Assuming that fluoride has no effect on a child’s IQ, you could get results that look like this if moms with more dilute urine tend to have kids with lower IQs.

But wait, there’s more. Fluoride is freely filtered at the glomerulus, but it is reabsorbed in the renal tubules. This is a pH-dependent process,[2] with more reabsorption occurring when the pH is lower. That means that women with higher urinary pH (due to a more vegetarian diet or just prolonged fasting) will, on average, have higher urinary fluoride levels.


Another confounder, this one unaccounted for.

Does the presence of possible confounders invalidate the study? Of course not, but these factors remind us to interpret results like this very carefully, especially when the documented benefits of fluoridation rest on much firmer scientific footing than the possible harms.

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Politics of science – making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear

Anti-fluoride activists have some wealthy backers – they are erecting billboards misrepresenting the Canadian study on many New Zealand cities – and local authorities are ordering their removal because of their scaremongering.

Many New Zealanders are concerned at the scaremongering by anti-Fluoride activists lately. Media commenters have criticised misleading advertisements placed in national and local newspapers by Fluoride Free New Zealand (FFNZ). And local authorities have ordered some of the billboards erected by FFNZ to be taken down because of their scaremongering (see Anti-fluoride billboard removed).

A misleading advertisement anti-fluoride activists are inserting in many New Zeland newspapers. Media commentators believe newspapers must allow space for the experts to present the true science listen to Gavin Ellis, Nine to Noon, Sept. 3).

I can fully understand anti-fluoride activists taking advantage of current interest in the recently published Canadian fluoride/IQ study (see If at first you don’t succeed . . . statistical manipulation might help). They are, after all, an advocacy group, well known for their misrepresentation of the science, and they have rich backers in the alternative health industry (see Big business funding of anti-science propaganda on health and Anti-fluoridationists go to Supreme Court – who is paying for this?) to finance this expensive advertising.

As always its a matter of “Reader Beware.”  In this day and age readers are well-advised to take what they see on billboards and in newspapers (particular advertisements) with large dollops of salt.

“Sexy” science

But what disturbs me is the role the personal ambition of scientists and institutional advocacy, the politics of science, has played in this unfortunate misrepresentation and advocacy of the Canadian study.

This is not an isolated case. Scientific researchers with any experience know of many examples where individual scientists have misrepresented or exaggerated their findings because of personal ambition and institutes have gone along with this to obtain kudos (and money). We all know of young scientists who have behaved in this way, effectively promoting their poor science, risen through the ranks and, before long, exited research to take high-paying roles in science administration. More honest researchers are often scathingly critical of such ambition – especially as we often have to put up with these people manipulating funding and distorting scientific directions when they later become administrators. At the same time, we respect the honest researchers who often plod away, making slow but real progress, but not seeking, or getting, full public recognition for their work – because it is not “sexy” enough.

Yes, I like most researchers, have experienced administrators demanding that we make our research more “sexy.” These same administrators have never expressed the desire we make out research more honest, more professional or more effective (except in terms of winning publicity and unthinking funds).

Relying on “authority” statements while ignoring real data

Interestingly, in this current round of scaremongering the anti-fluoride activists do not reproduce data from the studies. There are no graphs, for example. Perhaps the real-life data is so scattered it would expose their claims of specific values of harm as fantasy.

According to an FFNZ post, the IQ of children in this study would have dropped by 4.5 points, from 114.1 where mother’s urinary F concentration (MUF) was 0 mg/L to 109.6 when the MUF was 1 mg/L. But look at the figure below. Very few of the data points near a MUF of 1 mg/L are actually near 109.6. They vary from about 75 to 125! No wonder they do not reproduce the figure from the paper to support their claim.

Instead, they rely on the approach of quoting the statements of “authorities,” some of the authors and others who have commented favorably on the research.

Yes, the authors did state they had found an association (for boys) with a best-fit line (the blue line above) showing an IQ decline of 4.49 points for an increase in MUF of 1 mg/L. But clearly this is meaningless when the very high scatter of the data is considered – it has no predictive value. This is because the claimed IQ reduction represents only the best fit line, the very weak association of IQ with MUF they reported. An association so weak that it refers only to 1.3% of the data (see If at first you don’t succeed . . . statistical manipulation might help).

OK, perhaps I can be accused of ignoring the stated variability of the reported relationship (although so have the anti-fluoride campaigners). Green et al (2019) described the relationship in the abstract of their paper this way:

“A 1 mg/L increase in MUFSG was associated with a 4.49 point lower IQ score (95% CI, -8.38 to -0.60) in boys.”

As a predictor that is saying that 95% of IQ values for boys at a MUF of about 1 mg/L should be in the range 105.7 to 113.5. Again, simply not true (look at the figure above). In fact, this relationship refers only to the best fit line and the blue zone in the figure above indicates where this line could go 95% of the time.

So this “authority” statement about the reported relationship is simply of no practical value as it applies to only 1.3% of the data. It is meaningless and it’s irresponsible for the authors and other “authority” spokespeople to refer to this relationship in the way they have without mentioning how weak it is.

The “authority” statements and those of the authors themselves are doubly worse because they ignore the fact that there is no statistically significant difference for the IQs of all children and separately the boys and girls, for mothers who lived in fluoridated and unfluoridated areas during their pregnancy. The data showing this is in Table 1 of the paper (and presented below) so it is strange that the authors did not discuss this in their paper at all.

Mean IQ of children whose mothers drank fluoridated or unfluoridated water during pregnancy (SD =  11.9 – 14.7)

Nonfluoridated Fluoridated
All children 108.07 108.21
Boys 106.31 104.78
Girls 109.86 111.47

Shameless advocacy by scientists and institutions

Scientists are only human and it’s perhaps not surprising that authors of these and similar studies will exaggerate the importance of their finding and remain silent about deficiencies in their studies. After all, self-promotion of this sort, especially if it gets widespread industry and public attention, can only be good for their careers.

One of the authors, Cristine Till is reported as saying:

“At a population level [4.5 IQ points, SC], that’s a big shift. That translates to millions of IQ levels lost” [reported by CNN]

And:

“We would feel an impact of this magnitude at a population level because you would have millions of more children falling in the range of intellectual disability, or an IQ of under 70, and that many fewer kids in the gifted range…We recommend that women reduce their fluoride intake during pregnancy.” [Reported by NPR]

And:

“Four and a half IQ points is of substantial societal and economic concern…We’re talking a magnitude that’s comparable to what we’re talking about when we talk about lead exposure. You would have millions of more children falling into the range of intellectual disability with IQ scores of less than 70, and that many fewer kids in the gifted range.” [Reported by WebMD]

Looking at the graph we can clearly see that at the population levels there are not these huge losses in IQ. She omits the fact that the relationship they report is extremely weak. Her statement is misleading – but she no doubt feels its good for her career. She also omits the fact shown by their own Table 1 that there is no difference in IQ fo children whose mothers lived in fluoridated or unfluodiated areas.

And then we get promotion of these misrepresentations by other scientists – apparently independent of the authors but a closer look shows them to be linked.

This from  Phillipe Grandjean:

“This is an excellent study,”  . . . CDC has to come out and look at the risk-benefit ratio again, because they can’t continue relying on studies that were carried out decades ago.” (Reported by Washington Post]

Grandjean frequently makes these sort of comments on studies which can be interpreted as supporting anti-fluoride positions. He is even a bit of a go-to spokesperson for the Fluoride Action Network (FAN) and his bias is clear, despite his professional standing. As the chief editor for Environmental Health he would not allow my critique of the Malin & Till (2015) ADHD study to be considered for publication (see Fluoridation not associated with ADHD – a myth put to rest). My critique was later reviewed and accepted by a different journal but ethically it should have been published by the journal which published the original Malin & Till (2015) paper.

Grandjean was one of the people I commented on in my articles about the poor peer review of the Malin & Till paper (see Poor peer-review – a case study and Poor peer review – and its consequences). So was David Bellinger – a subeditor who dealt with the Malin & Till (2105) paper. Bellinger, coincidentally, wrote a supportive opinion piece on the Green et al (2019) paper in the issue of JAMA  Pediatrics which published the Green et al paper.

It amazes me sometimes how incestuous journal editors, paper authors and peer reviewers cna be.

Don’t get me wrong. there was also quite a widespread criticism of the Green et al (2019) paper in the scientific community. Hopefully, some of these critics will contribute critiques of the paper to the journal. Also, hopefully the journal editor will allow these critiques to be published (although, as I point out in If at first you don’t succeed . . . statistical manipulation might help the editor seems only to be welcoming debate on these findings if it is in the public media).

The point, of course, is that activist anti-fluoride organisations like FAN and FFNZ never quote those critics. they simply quote the apparently “authoritative” figures who have praised the paper or promoted the misinformation described above. Thes misleading quotes from authors, institutes and “authority” supporters are simply mana from heaven to the FAN and FFNZ activists.

Dangers of science politics allied with ideologically-motivated advocacy

Problems with the politics of science occur all the time. That is why I always suggest readers should look at papers, even those in the most reputable journal, critically and intelligently. Importantly, one should look at the actual data where possible to check that it is portrayed properly in the discussion, conclusions and abstract. Otherwise, it is easy to be misled by ambitious authors, public relations press releases from institutions and “independent” scientific commenters.

Also, only the most naive reader accepts information in news articles and adverts as necessary gospel truth. The sensible reader approaches the media and advertising critically.

However, in this case, I think people have a right to be far more concerned about the misinformation – both that presented by authors, their institutes and their colleagues, and the way it is presented to us by the media and advertising. This is because the worst sort of fear-mongering is involved – playing on our love for our children and inherent wishes to do anything to protect them.

So I support the concern expressed by people in the media, the suggestion that such advertising should be accompanied by more informed articles, and the actions of local authorities in ordering the offending billboards be taken down. I passionately believe in free speech and defend the rights of even those I think wrong to partake of this – to express their opinions. But when the wellbeing and health of children and their parents are compromised by that free speech I think there is a case for it to be limited.

After all, there are other avenues, especially one which enable claims to be challenged properly, where that free speech can continue without creating harm.

Science reporters should be more responsible

I can’t finish without airing a concern I have about science reporters. In a sense, they are in a privileged position because the subjects they deal are credible because science is involved. Science does have a reputation for getting to the truth and being objective.

Privilege is also conferred on these reporters because they continually cite and quote experts – people of “authority” because of their education and scientific positions.

But surely an experienced science reporter is aware of the problems of politics in science – the role of ambition and search for fame which can lead to misrepresentations or at least over-glorification of the subjects being reported by the researchers involved. They must also surely be aware that different schools of thought within the scientific community can lead to biased presentations.

It’s not good enough for science reporters to simply quote authors and biased researchers. Surely they have an obligation to do some checking on the credibility of the claims being made. Why not read the full papers rather than rely on an abstract or an author’s claim? Further, and more importantly, why not cast a critical eye over the evidence reported in the paper and the data if it is there? Surely most science reports have some scientific and statistical skills.

I realise reporters have deadlines. In this case, some of the “authorities” commenting on the paper had been given prior access – a bit unfair for other reporters. It is tempting to go with what one has and not delay an article by indulging in critical analysis. But reporters should also think responsibly. Misinformation, in this case, is being used to promote dangerous scaremongering. That scaremongering should not be assisted by negligent reporting.

I am saddened that hardly any reporters quote the important information from the paper – that presented in the paper’s Table one and the table above. Differences in IQ of children whose mothers lived in fluoridated or unfluoridated areas are not different – or more correctly the differences (changes of +0.14 points for all children, -1.53 points for boys and + 1.61 points for girls when fluoridation is involved) are not statistically significant.  OK, the authors and their promoters were silent about that data – but a good reporter should have picked it up.

On the other hand, most science reporters ignored the actual data and went with the quotes. So instead of the data in the table above a misleading IQ change of 4.5 points for boys was presented as the main message. With absolutely no evaluation of how weak the relationship used to obtain that figure is.

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If at first you don’t succeed . . . statistical manipulation might help

Anti-fluoride campaigners are promoting yet another new study they claim shows community water fluoridation lowers children’s IQ. For example, the Fluoride Free NZ (FFNZ) press release Ground Breaking Study – Fluoridated Water Lowers Kid’s IQs which claims the study confirms“our worst fears, linking exposure to fluoridated water during pregnancy to lowered IQ for the developing child.”

Yet the study itself shows no significant difference in children whose mothers lived in fluoridated or unfluoridated areas during pregnancy. Here is the relevant data from Table 1 in the paper:

Mean IQ of children whose mothers drank fluoridated or unfluoridated water during pregnancy (SD =  11.9 – 14.7)

Nonfluoridated Fluoridated
All children 108.07 108.21
Boys 106.31 104.78
Girls 109.86 111.47

The differences between fluoridated and nonfluoridated are not statistically significant.

The paper has just been published and is:

Green, R., Lanphear, B., Hornung, R., Flora, D., Martinez-Mier, E. A., Neufeld, R., … Till, C. (2019). Association Between Maternal Fluoride Exposure During Pregnancy and IQ Scores in Offspring in Canada. JAMA Pediatrics, 1–9.

Surprisingly the authors do not discuss the data in the table above. Its as if the data didn’t exist, despite being given in their Table 1. I find this surprising because their discussion is aimed at finding a difference – specifically, a decrease in child IQ due to fluoridation – and surely these mean values must be relevant. Were the authors embarrassed by these figures because they did not show the effect they wanted?

So how did they manage to find an effect they could attribute to fluoride, or fluoridation, despite the mean values above? They basically resort to statistical manipulation – and this has opened up an intense controversy about the paper.

An unprecedented “Editor’s Note”

The journal editor, Dimitri A. Christakis, published a note alongside the paper (see Decision to Publish Study on Maternal Fluoride Exposure During Pregnancy), together with a piece in the Opinion section by David C. Bellinger (see Is Fluoride Potentially Neurotoxic?). This opinion piece is described as an editorial although Bellinger is not an editor of the journal or on the Editorial Board.

This is, in my experience, completely unprecedented. Editor’s don’t comment on the quality of papers or the refereeing process and I can only conclude that within the journal editorial board and those who reviewed the paper there were sharp differences about its quality and whether it should be published. While an editorial may sometimes bring attention to an article, in this case, it is likely that Bellinger was one of the reviewers of the paper and he is expressing his viewpoint on it and supports its publication.

Christakis writes “The decision to publish this article was not easy.” He goes on to imply the journal supports publication “regardless of how contentious the results may be.”  But surely there is no need to defend a good quality paper in this way just because the results may be “contentious.”

Interestingly, FFNZ interpreted the publication of the Editor’s note as making the publication of the paper more “impactful” not realising that the Note is probably not positive for the paper as it reveals controversy over the paper’s quality and whether it was worthy of publication. FFNZ also chose to describe Bellinger’s comments in his opinion piece as representing the views of the authors. However, it would be inappropriate for an editor to make such comments.

I think Bellinger has his own biases and preferences which lead him to advocate for papers like this. I commented on Bellinger’s role in the review of another paper promoting an anti-fluoride perspective in my articles Poor peer-review – a case study and Poor peer review – and its consequences.

A large amount of controversy

I am surprised at the degree of controversy around this paper – and it’s loudness. The fact that it started on the same day the paper was made public reveal various actors have had access to the paper and have been debating it for some time.  This could have been stoked by the unorthodox statistical analysis used and contradictions in the findings.

But it appears this controversy had gone far wider than the journal editors and reviewers of the paper because of the immediate reactions from anti-fluoride organisations like the Fluoride Action Network (see BREAKING: GOVERNMENT-FUNDED STUDY LINKS FLUORIDATED WATER DURING PREGNANCY TO LOWER IQS IN OFFSPRING), some leading Newspapers,  professional bodies (see AADR Comment on Effect of Fluoride Exposure on Children’s IQ Study) and the UK Science Media Centre which published a reaction from experts article (see expert reaction to study looking at maternal exposure to fluoride and IQ in children).

This suggests to me a large degree of lobbying. Not only from activists and anti-fluoride scientists or reviewers. But also from authors and their institute. I am not really surprised as I have often seen how politics, activism, commercial interests, and scientific ambitions will coordinate in these situations.

How to discover an effect from a nonsignificant difference

So how do we get from the data in the table above – showing no statistically significant difference between fluoridated and unfluoridated areas – to a situation where the authors (who don’t refer to that data in their discussion) say:

“higher levels of fluoride exposure during pregnancy were associated with lower IQ scores in children measured at age 3 to 4 years. These findings were observed at fluoride levels typically found in white North American women. This indicates the possible need to reduce fluoride intake during pregnancy.”

In their press releases and statements to media, where they are not constrained by a journal’s need for evidence and objectivity, they come out even more vocally against community water fluoridation.

Well, it appears to me, by statistical manipulation. One of the Science Media experts referred to above, Prof Thom Baguley, wrote:

“First, the claim that maternal fluoride exposure is associated with a decrease in IQ of children is false. This finding was non-significant (but not reported in the abstract). They did observe a decrease for male children and a slight increase in IQ (but non-significant) for girls. This is an example of subgroup analysis – which is frowned upon in these kinds of studies because it is nearly always possible to identify some subgroup which shows an effect if the data are noisy. Here the data are very noisy.”

It appears the authors found a significant effect of child sex on IQ so made a decision to do a subgroup analysis – of boys and girls – and this produced a significant association of IQ with maternal urinary fluoride for the boys. This resort to subgroup analysis may have, in itself, produced a misleading significant relationship.

Adam Krutchen, Biostatistics PhD student at the University of Pittsburgh, also illustrates how the relationship with child sex has confused the analysis. He comments on the data that he managed to extract from the paper’s Figure 3:

“There were drastic sex-specific IQ differences in the children, which is of course strange. We shouldn’t expect anything like that to happen. This difference is very significant. There’s also some outlier extremely low IQ values among the male children.”

He is saying that his regression analysis showed a strong effect of child sex on IQ. This is quite irrespective of maternal urinary F or drinking water F. However, once that effect of child sex is taken into account he found no relationship of child IQ with maternal urinary F. He says:

“with such a significant effect of sex on IQ, does fluoride have any remaining relationship? The answer is a resounding no in the digitized data.”

It appears that including child sex difference in the regression analysis produces the finding that there is no significant relationship of fluoride to child IQ after taking into account the significant relationship of IQ with child sex. But when the data is divided into subgroups and analysed separately (a technique statisticians “frown on” “because it is nearly always possible to identify some subgroup which shows an effect if the data are noisy”) a significant relationship of IQ with maternal urinary fluoride can be produced for boys (but not girls).

Interestingly, a second part of the Green et al., (2019) study investigated a relationship of child IQ with unverified estimated fluoride intake by the pregnant mothers. The estimation method was not verified so may be questionable). No sex difference appeared in that data set.

How strong are the reported relationships

Perhaps it is not necessary to go any further. Perhaps the data for mean IQ in the table above is sufficient to show there is no effect of fluoride on IQ. Or perhaps the critique of the analysis of subgroups used is sufficient to make the reported conclusions suspect.

However, perhaps a comment on the weakness of the relationships reported by Green et al is useful – if only because I took the trouble to digitally extract the data from the figures in the paper and do my own regression analyses on the data.

Of course, digital extraction does not get all the data – even if only because the points may merge. In this case, I managed to extract 410 data points from Figure 3A which showed the relationships of child IQ with the maternal urinary F concentrations during pregnancy. This is quite a bit smaller than the 512 data pairs the authors reported in their Table 1 and suggests to me they had not plotted all their data. However, the values for means and coefficients obtained by my own regression were very similar to those reported by Green et al., (2019).

The authors reported a significant (p=0.02) negative relationship of boy’s IQ with maternal urinary F. They do not discuss how strong that relationship is – although the wide scatter of data points in the figures suggest it is not strong. My regression analysis showed the relationship explained only 1.3% of the variance in IQ. I do not think that is worth much. With such low explanatory power, I think the authors overstate their conclusions.

I think this is another case of placing far too much reliance on p-values and ignoring other results of the statistical analysis. I discussed this in a previous article – see Anti-fluoride activists misrepresent a new kidney/liver study).

Conclusions

I think this paper has been overblown. It has problems with its statistical analyses as well as other limitations referred to in the paper. I do not think it should have been published in its present form – surely reviewers should have picked up on these problems. I can only conclude that intense arguments occurred within the journal’s editorial board and amongst reviewers – and most probably more widely amongst institutes and activist groups. In the end, the publication decision was most likely political.

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Not just another rat study

A new high-quality study of the effect of fluoride on the memory and learning behaviour of rats has produced definitive results. Anti-fluoride campaigners had great hopes this study would bring an end to community water fluoridation (CWF) – but their hopes have been dashed.

The study showed no effect of fluoride on the memory, learning and motor skills of rats thus reinforcing the consensus that CWF is safe

Animal experiments are commonly used to investigate possible health effects of chemicals like fluoride. This enables strict research protocols without the ethical problems faced by human studies. Consequently, there have been a large number of investigations of the effect of fluoride on animals. Some of these have suggested harmful effects. The US anti-fluoride activist organisation, the Fluoride Action Network (FAN) lists 45 studies “where mice or rats treated with fluoride were found to suffer impairments in their learning and/or memory abilities” (see FLUORIDE AFFECTS LEARNING & MEMORY IN ANIMALS).

FAN claims these and similar studies as irrefutable evidence that CWF is harmful – particularly in their major campaign claiming CWF lowers IQ and should be stopped. However, a more scientific assessment is far less dogmatic.

The US National Toxicity Program (NTP) examined published research of potential neurological effects from fluoride exposures in experimental rodent animals in a systematic review published in 2016 (see Systematic literature review on the effects of fluoride on learning and memory in animal studies). They found many of the studies had limitations due to confounding in the learning and memory assessments and there was a lack of discrimination between motor and learning skills. Very few of the studies were made at drinking water concentrations relevant to CWF and the evidence for adverse effects was “low to moderate,” and weakest for animals during their developmental phase.

The NTP concluded further research was needed and undertook laboratory studies with rodents to fill the research gaps it had identified. Those studies are now complete and have been published in a research paper:

McPherson, C. A., Zhang, G., Gilliam, R., Brar, S. S., Wilson, R., Brix, A., … Harry, G. J. (2018). An Evaluation of Neurotoxicity Following Fluoride Exposure from Gestational Through Adult Ages in Long-Evans Hooded Rats. Neurotoxicity Research. Neurotoxicity Research.

The laboratory experiment

The authors used four treatments for the rats:

  • G1: Fed standard rodent chow;
  • G2: Fed low-fluoride chow;
  • G3: Fed low-fluoride chow + drinking water with 10 ppm F;
  • G4 Fed low-fluoride chow + drinking water with 20 ppm F.

Effects of drinking water F were determined by comparing results for G3 and G4 with G2.

The drinking water fluoride concentrations still seem high (compared with the recommended level of 0.75 ppm for CWF) but are lower than used in most earlier studies (often around 100 ppm). However, the basis for these choices was the use of the US secondary drinking water standard (2 ppm) and US UPA maximum contaminant level (4 ppm) and “the conventional wisdom that a 5-fold increase in dose is required to achieve comparable human serum levels.” However, this “wisdom” is debated as blood serum levels fluctuate.

These drinking water concentrations are still far higher than the recommended optimum level for CWF (0.75 ppm) so the results should be seen as more related to the defined upper limits than to CWF itself.

Behavioural assessments

A range of behavioural assessments was made. These included:

“motor, sensory, or learning and memory performance on running wheel, open-field activity, light/dark place preference, elevated plus maze, pre-pulse startle inhibition, passive avoidance, hot-plate latency, Morris water maze acquisition, probe test, reversal learning, and Y-maze.”

The purpose of using such a wide range was to overcome deficiencies of the measurements made in earlier studies and to fill in gaps. Animals at the developmental stage were included as most earlier studies had been made with adult rats.

“No significant differences observed”

One of the most commonly used phrases in this paper as the results are presented and discussed is that there were “no significant differences observed across groups.”

The authors note in their abstract that they “observed no exposure-related differences” in any of the behavioural tests listed above.

This result is important. The study is authoritative. The chosen experimental protocols resulted from an extensive systematic review of the earlier work which identified gaps and deficiencies. A very wide range of behavioural tests was used. And the experimental plans were discussed very widely before the experiments began.

We can conclude, therefore, that rodent experiments are unlikely to show behavioural effects related to fluoride exposure at the concentrations which, the authors argue, are relevant to the recommended maximum drinking water standard (2 ppm) and maximum contaminant level (4 ppm) for humans. The argument that this result is relevant to humans is strengthened by the possibility that ““the conventional wisdom that a 5-fold increase in dose is required” to make results relevant for humans may be inflated.

The argument is further strengthened for humans as the recommended drinking water fluoride concentrations for humans is even lower than the maximum drinking water standard and the maximum contaminant level.

Other assessments

The researchers also analysed thyroid hormones and examined collected tissues. They reported:

“No exposure-related pathology was observed in the heart, liver, kidney, testes, seminal vesicles, or epididymides.”

And:

No evidence of neuronal death or glial activation was observed in the hippocampus at 20 ppm F.”

In fact, the only statistically significant effects they found were a “mild inflammation in the prostate gland” and “evidence of mild fluorosis in adults” at 20 ppm F (treatment G4). Remember this level corresponds to the maximum contaminant level for humans and dental fluorosis has also been reported for humans at that concentration.

The anti-fluoride spin

Several years ago I discussed the planned NTP work and the reaction of anti-fluoride campaigners to it in my article Fluoride and IQ – another study coming up.

These campaigners seemed ecstatic about the planned NTP work, although I did comment:

“You wouldn’t think the anti-fluoride crowd would welcome such a careful analysis of the poor-quality articles they promote”

However, Fluoride Free NZ revealed the spin they placed on the NTP document describing the systematic review and the planned work in their press release at the time (see Fluoride-Brain Studies Set to Expose Fluoridation Damage):

“Results could mean the end to fluoridation world-wide, and definitely should put a halt to any plans to start fluoridation in places not currently fluoridated.

Because it is now well established that fluoride affects the brain, the NTP plans to conduct new animal studies to determine the lowest dose at which this damage occurs. They also plan to do a systematic review of all the existing scientific literature. To date, there have been 314 studies that have investigated fluoride’s effects on the brain and nervous system. These include 181 animal studies, 112 human studies, and 21 cell studies.”

I commented on this:

“The confirmation bias and dogmatic agenda stick out like a sore thumb – don’t expect these people to accurately report this study’s findings.”

Well, it seems that these campaigners are still stuck in dumb shock of the denial phase as they have yet to make any comment on these research results. When they do get around to overcoming their speechlessness they are going to be hard put to reconcile this denial with their earlier hopes for the research findings.

There is no way this study can be used to argue for “the end to fluoridation worldwide” or that there “definitely should” be “a halt to any plans to start fluoridation in places not currently fluoridated.

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Anti-fluoridationists rejection of IQ studies in fluoridated area.

US anti-fluoride activist Paul Connett claims studies cannot detect an IQ effect from fluoridated water because total fluoride intake is the real problem – but still campaigns against community water fluoridation. Image credit: MSoF “Activist Spouts Nonsense – The Evidence Supports Fluoridation”

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:

Factor Parameter estimate 95% Confidence interval p-value
Area of residence -0.01 -3.22 to 3.20 .996
Fluoride toothpaste use 0.70 -1.03 to 2.43 .428
Fluoride tablets 1.55 -0.38 to 3.49 .116

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.

Conclusions

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.

References

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.

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A conference paper on the maternal prenatal urinary fluoride/child IQ study has problems

Image credit: Do new mothers doing a Ph.D. get enough support?

The anti-fluoride movement has certainly mobilised over the prenatal maternal urinary fluoride study which reported an association with child IQ. They see it as the best thing since sliced bread and believe it should lead to the end of fluoridation worldwide.

They also seem to be putting all their eggs in this one basket and have started a campaign aimed at stopping pregnant women from drinking fluoridated water (See Warning to Pregnant Women: Do Not Drink Fluoridated Water).

So I was not surprised to see a newsletter this morning from the Fluoride Action Network reporting another output from this study – a conference paper (most likely a poster) presented at the  3rd Early Career Researchers Conference on Environmental Epidemiology. The meeting was in Freising, Germany, on 19-20 March 2018.

I had been aware of the poster for the last week so had expected FAN to gleefully jump on it and start promoting it in their campaigns.

Here is a link to the abstract:

Thomas, D., Sanchez, B., Peterson, K., Basu, N., Angeles Martinez-Mier, E., Mercado-Garcia, A., … Tellez-Rojo, M. M. (2018). Prenatal fluoride exposure and neurobehavior among children 1-3 years of age in Mexico. Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 75(Suppl 1), A10–A10.

It’s only an abstract and it may be some time before a formal paper is published, if at all. Posters do not get much in the way of peer review and often not followed by formal papers.  So I can’t say much about the poster at this stage as I never like to make an assessment of studies on the basis of abstracts alone.

But, in this case, I have Deena Thomas’s Ph.D. thesis which was the first place the work was reported. If you are interested you can access it from this link:

Thomas, D. B. (2014). Fluoride exposure during pregnancy and its effects on childhood neurobehavior: a study among mother-child pairs from Mexico City, Mexico. University of Michigan.

I will wait for a formal paper before properly critiquing the poster, but at the moment I find a big discrepancy between the Thesis conclusions and the conclusions presented in the poster abstract.

Thesis conclusions

In her work, Deena Thomas used the Mental Development Index (MDI) which is an appropriate way of determining neurobehavioral effects in young children.

She concluded in her thesis (page 37):

“Neither maternal urinary or plasma fluoride was associated with offspring MDI scores”

And (page 38):

“This analysis suggests that maternal intake of fluoride during pregnancy does not have a strong impact on offspring cognitive development in the first three years of life.”

And further (page 48):

“Maternal intake of fluoride during pregnancy does not have any measurable effects on cognition in early life.”

So – no association found of child MDI score with maternal prenatal urinary F concentrations.

Poster conclusions

But the poster tells a different story.

The abstract concluded:

“Our findings add to our team’s recently published report on prenatal fluoride and cognition at ages 4 and 6–12 years by suggesting that higher in utero exposure to F has an adverse impact on offspring cognitive development that can be detected earlier, in the first three years of life.”

So her conclusions reported in her thesis are exactly the opposite of the conclusions reported in her conference poster!

What the hell is going on?

The data

Obviously, I do not have access to the data and she does not provide it in her thesis. But from her descriptions of the data in her thesis and her poster perhaps we can draw some tentative conclusions.

The table below displays the data description, and a description of the best-fit line determined by statistical analysis, in her thesis and her poster.

Information on data Thomas Ph.D. Thesis Conference abstract
Number of mother/child pairs 431 401
Maternal Urinary F range (mg/L) 0.110 – 3.439 0.195 – 3.673
Mean maternal urinary F (mg/L) 0.896 0.835
Model β* -0.631 -2.40
Model p-value 0.391 – Not significant
95% CI for β -4.38 to -0.40

*β is the coefficient, or slope, of the best-fit line

Conclusions

Apparently at least 30 data pairs have been removed from her thesis data to produce the dataset used for her poster. Perhaps even some data pairs were added (the maximum urinary F value is higher in the smaller data set used for the poster).

This sort of change in the data selected for the statistical analysis could easily swing the conclusion from no effect to a statistically significant effect. So the reasons for the changes to the dataset are of special interest.

Paul Connett claims this poster “strengthens” the findings reported in the Bashash paper.  He adds:

“This finding adds strength to the rapidly accumulating evidence that a pregnant woman’s intake of fluoride similar to that from artificially fluoridated water can cause a large loss of IQ in the offspring.”

But this comes only by apparently removing the conflicting conclusions presented in Deela Thomas’s Ph.D. thesis. We are still left with the need to explain this conflict and why a significant section of the data was removed.

To be clear – I am not accusing Thomas et al. (2018) of fiddling the data to get the result they did. Just that, given the different conclusions in her thesis and the poster,  there is a responsibility to explain the changes made to the dataset.

From the limited information presented in the poster abstract, I would think the scatter in the data could be like that seen in the Bashash et al. (2017) paper. The coefficient of the best fit line (β) is relatively small and while the 95% CI indicates the fit is statistically significant its closeness to zero suggest that it is a close thing.

However, let’s look forward to getting better information on this particular study either through correspondence or formal publication of a research paper.

Other articles on the Mexican study

Fluoride, pregnancy and the IQ of offspring,
Maternal urinary fluoride/IQ study – an update,
Anti-fluoridation campaigners often use statistical significance to confirm bias,
Paul Connett “updates” NZ MPs about fluoride?
Paul Connett’s misrepresentation of maternal F exposure study debunked,
Mary Byrne’s criticism is misplaced and avoids the real issues

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The 52 IQ studies used by anti-fluoride campaigners

Slide number 30 from Paul Connett presentation prepared for a talk at NZ Parliament buildings in February 2018.

Continuing my critique of the presentation prepared by Paul Connett for his much-publicised meeting at Parliament Building in February. The meeting attracted only three MPs but his presentation is useful as it presents all the arguments anti-fluoride campaigners rely on at the moment.

My previous articles on this presentation are Anti-fluoride activist commits “Death by PowerPoint” and Paul Connett’s misrepresentation of maternal F exposure study debunked.

In this article, I deal with the argument presented in the slide above. it is an argument repeated again and again by activists. Connett has posted a more detailed list of these studies and his description of them in Fluoride & IQ: The 52 Studiesat the Fluoride Action Network website.

Studies in areas of endemic fluorosis

All the 52 studies comment refers to are from regions of endemic fluorosis in countries like India, China, Mexico and Iran where dietary fluoride intake is above the recommended maximum level. People in these areas suffer a range of health problems and studies show cognitive deficits as one of them. However, a quick survey of Google Scholar shows this concern is well down the list (See Endemic fluorosis and its health effects). Only 5% of the Google Scholar hits related to health effects of endemic fluorosis considered IQ effects.

People in high fluoride areas where fluorosis is endemic suffer a range of health problems. Credit: Xiang (2014)

In, most, but not all, cases the major source of fluoride in the diet is drinking water with high fluoride levels (above the WHO recommended 1.5 mg/L). Paul Connett’s logic is simply to extrapolate to low drinking water fluoride concentrations typical of community water fluoridation (CWF). However, we do not see the other health effects like severe dental fluorosis, skeletal fluorosis, etc., where CWF is used.

His logic also ignores the possibility that cognitive deficits may result from other health problems common in areas of endemic fluorosis. Problems such as premature births and low birth weight, skeletal fluorosis or even the psychological effect of unsightly teeth due to severe dental fluorosis.

Comparing “high” fluoride villages with “low” fluoride villages

This approach is simplistic as it simply compares a population suffering fluorosis with another population not. Yes, the underlying problem is the high dietary intake (mainly from drinking water) in the high fluoride villages – but that does not prove fluoride in drinking water is the direct cause of a problem. The examples discussed above, eg., low birth weights or premature births, could be the direct cause.

It is easy to show statistically significant differences of drinking water fluoride and a whole host of fluorosis related diseases between two villages but that, in itself, does not prove that drinking water fluoride is the direct cause. Nor does it justify extrapolating such results to other low concentrations situations typical of CWF.

Paul Connett’s logic ignores the fact that in most of these studies the “low” fluoride villages (which the studies were treating as the control or normal situations where IQ deficits did not occur) had drinking water fluoride concentrations like that used in CWF. It also ignores, or unjustly attempts to dismiss) studies which show no cognitive deficits related to CWF.

A low fluoride concentration study showing an IQ effect

After making a big thing about the large numbers of studies and being challenged by the high fluoride concentrations involved Connett normally goes into a “yes, but” mode and attempts to transfer that credibility of “large numbers” to the very few studies which report effects at low fluoride concentrations.

He usually makes a big thing of the study by Lin et al (1991):

Lin Fa-Fu, Aihaiti, Zhao Hong-Xin, Lin Jin, Jiang Ji-Yong, M. (1991). THE RELATIONSHIP OF A LOW-IODINE AND HIGH- FLUORIDE .ENVIRONMENT TO SUBCLINICAL CRETINISM lN XINJIANG. Iodine Deficiency Disorder Newsletter, 24–25.

Connett claims this study shows a lower IQ when the drinking water F concentration was 0.88 ppm, but the areas suffered from iodine deficiency which is related to cognitive deficits.

The study I reviewed recent by Bashash et al (2017) (see Paul Connett’s misrepresentation of maternal F exposure study debunked) is also on Connett’s list. He doesn’t mention, however, that while an association of child IQ with prenatal maternal urinary fluoride was reported the paper also reported there was no observed association of child IQ with child urinary fluoride concentrations.

Studies not showing an effect

Connett lists 7 studies which showed no effect on IQ. One of these was the well-known Broadbent et al., (2014) study from New Zealand, which he, of course, proceeds to debunk in an irrational and not very truthful manner.

He does not mention the studies from Canada (Barberio et al. 2017 ) and Sweden (Aggeborn & Öhman 2016) which also show no effect of CWF on IQ.

The 6 other studies listed are all Chinese, and not translated. Interesting because Connett’s Fluoride Action Network invested money and time into translating obscure Chinese papers that could support their argument of harm. They obviously did not bother translating those papers which did not confirm their bias.

Conclusion

So, Connett’s 52 studies are rather a waste of time. Based in areas of endemic fluorosis their findings are not transferable to areas where CWF is used. The quality of most papers is low and, usually, the studies are simply a comparison of two villages, one where fluorosis is endemic and the “control” village where it isn’t but drinking water concentrations are like that used in CWF.

Connett simply is not able to properly evaluate, or in some cases even consider, studies which show no effect of fluoride on IQ or were made in areas where CWF exists and no effects are shown.

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Paul Connett “updates” NZ MPs about fluoride?

Data from Bashash et al., (2017). Despite a statistically significant relationship of child IQ with mothers prenatal urinary fluoride, this explains only about 3% of the huge scatter in the data.

I haven’t followed the latest speaking tour of Paul Connett – organised by the local Fluoride Free NZ organisation. But I watched a TV interview with him this morning and came away thinking he is skating on very thin ice – scientifically. He has put all his eggs in one basket – promoting a Mexican study as the be-all and end-all of scientific research which should lead to the immediate ceasing of community water fluoridation.

Paul is a leader of the anti-fluoride activist group the Fluoride Action Network and appears to love visiting New Zealand during our summer (and his winter). Local campaigners seem to idolise him – and rely heavily on him as a self-declared  “world expert on fluoridation.” But this idol has feet of clay (don’t they all?).

In fact, Paul has no original research on fluoride and is simply presenting a biased picture of the scientific literature on the subject., He relies heavily on his academic status and qualifications to give his biased views respectability.

But back to the Mexican study. Paul is referring to this paper:

Bashash, M., Thomas, D., Hu, H., Martinez-mier, E. A., Sanchez, B. N., Basu, N., … Hernández-avila, M. (2016). Prenatal Fluoride Exposure and Cognitive Outcomes in Children at 4 and 6 – 12 Years of Age in Mexico.Environmental Health Perspectives, 1, 1–12.

I have written about this study in some detail in my articles:

Here I will simply return to the poor explanatory power of fluoride for the children’s IQ measured in the study.

The graph above is a plot of the data from the paper – child IQ compared with the pre-natal urinary fluoride levels of the mothers.

Now, Paul describes this study as “rigorous” and relies heavily on it. But despite a statistically significant relationship, the huge scatter in the data really stands out.

In fact, this relationship explains only about 3% of this scatter! It probably only appears because the researchers did not include any proper risk-modifying factors in their regression analysis.

Well, Paul is making a big thing of speaking to New Zealand MPs tonight to “update” them on this latest research. Rather smug because it implies the research is his – when it isn’t.

But this research does not “prove” what Connett implies. It is not as rigorous as he claims. And it is certainly not an argument to stop community water fluoridation in New Zealand.


Note: Paul Connett and I had a scientific exchange on the fluoridation issue four years ago. Interested readers can download the full text from Researchgate –  The fluoride debate.

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