Fluoride, Teeth, and the Atomic Bomb (excerpt)
by Chris Bryson & Joel Griffiths
Some fifty years after the United States began adding fluoride to public water supplies to reduce cavities in children’s teeth, declassified government documents are shedding new light on the roots of that still-controversial public health measure, revealing a surprising connection between fluoride and the dawning of the nuclear age.
Today, two thirds of U.S. public drinking water is fluoridated. Many municipalities still resist the practice, disbelieving the government’s assurances of safety.
Since the days of World War II, when this nation prevailed by building the world’s first atomic bomb, U.S. public health leaders have maintained that low doses of fluoride are safe for people, and good for children’s teeth.
That safety verdict should now be re-examined in the light of hundreds of once-secret WWII documents obtained by Griffiths and Bryson —including declassified papers of the Manhattan Project, the U.S. military group that built the atomic bomb.
Fluoride was the key chemical in atomic bomb production, according to the documents. Massive quantities of fluoride— millions of tons— were essential for the manufacture of bomb-grade uranium and plutonium for nuclear weapons throughout the Cold War. One of the most toxic chemicals known, fluoride rapidly emerged as the leading chemical health hazard of the U.S atomic bomb program—both for workers and for nearby communities, the documents reveal.
Other revelations include:
* Much of the original proof that fluoride is safe for humans in low doses was generated by A-bomb program scientists, who had been secretly ordered to provide “evidence useful in litigation” against defense contractors for fluoride injury to citizens. The first lawsuits against the U.S. A-bomb program were not over radiation, but over fluoride damage, the documents show.
* Human studies were required. Bomb program researchers played a leading role in the design and implementation of the most extensive U.S. study of the health effects of fluoridating public drinking water—conducted in Newburgh, New York from 1945 to 1956. Then, in a classified operation code-named “Program F,” they secretly gathered and analyzed blood and tissue samples from Newburgh citizens, with the cooperation of State Health Department personnel.
* The original secret version—obtained by these reporters—of a 1948 study published by Program F scientists in the Journal of the American Dental Association shows that evidence of adverse health effects from fluoride was censored by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) —considered the most powerful of Cold War agencies— for reasons of national security.
* The bomb program’s fluoride safety studies were conducted at the University of Rochester, site of one of the most notorious human radiation experiments of the Cold War, in which unsuspecting hospital patients were injected with toxic doses of radioactive plutonium. The fluoride studies were conducted with the same ethical mind-set, in which “national security” was paramount.
* The U.S. government’s conflict of interest—and its motive to prove fluoride “safe” — has not until now been made clear to the general public in the furious debate over water fluoridation since the 1950’s, nor to civilian researchers and health professionals, or journalists.
The declassified documents resonate with a growing body of scientific evidence, and a chorus of questions, about the health effects of fluoride in the environment.
Human exposure to fluoride has mushroomed since World War II, due not only to fluoridated water and toothpaste, but to environmental pollution by major industries from aluminum to pesticides: fluoride is a critical industrial chemical.
The impact can be seen, literally, in the smiles of our children. Large numbers of U.S. young people—up to 80 percent in some cities—now have dental fluorosis, the first visible sign of excessive fluoride exposure, according to the U.S. National Research Council. (The signs are whitish flecks or spots, particularly on the front teeth, or dark spots or stripes in more severe cases.)
Less-known to the public is that fluoride also accumulates in bones —“The teeth are windows to what’s happening in the bones,” explains Paul Connett, Professor of Chemistry at St. Lawrence University (N.Y.). In recent years, pediatric bone specialists have expressed alarm about an increase in stress fractures among U.S. young people. Connett and other scientists are concerned that fluoride —linked to bone damage by studies since the 1930’s— may be a contributing factor. The declassified documents add urgency: much of the original proof that low-dose fluoride is safe for children’s bones came from U.S. bomb program scientists, according to this investigation.
Now, researchers who have reviewed these declassified documents fear that Cold War national security considerations may have prevented objective scientific evaluation of vital public health questions concerning fluoride.
“Information was buried,” concludes Dr. Phyllis Mullenix, former head of toxicology at Forsyth Dental Center in Boston, and now a critic of fluoridation. Animal studies Mullenix and co-workers conducted at Forsyth in the early 1990’s indicated that fluoride was a powerful central nervous system (CNS) toxin, and might adversely affect human brain functioning, even at low doses. (New epidemiological evidence from China adds support, showing a correlation between low-dose fluoride exposure and diminished I.Q. in children.) Mullenix’s results were published in 1995, in a reputable peer-reviewed scientific journal.
During her investigation, Mullenix was astonished to discover there had been virtually no previous U.S. studies of fluoride’s effects on the human brain. Then, her application for a grant to continue her CNS research was turned down by the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), where an NIH panel, she says, flatly told her that “fluoride does not have central nervous system effects.”
Declassified documents of the U.S. atomic-bomb program indicate otherwise. An April 29, 1944 Manhattan Project memo reports: “Clinical evidence suggests that uranium hexafluoride may have a rather marked central nervous system effect…. It seems most likely that the F [code for fluoride] component rather than the T [code for uranium] is the causative factor.”
Was information suppressed? These reporters made what appears to be the first discovery of the original classified version of a fluoride safety study by bomb program scientists. A censored version of this study was later published in the August 1948 Journal of the American Dental Association. Comparison of the secret with the published version indicates that the U.S. AEC did censor damaging information on fluoride, to the point of tragicomedy.
This was a study of the dental and physical health of workers in a factory producing fluoride for the A-bomb program, conducted by a team of dentists from the Manhattan Project.
* The secret version reports that most of the men had no teeth left. The published version reports only that the men had fewer cavities.
* The secret version says the men had to wear rubber boots because the fluoride fumes disintegrated the nails in their shoes. The published version does not mention this.
* The secret version says the fluoride may have acted similarly on the men’s teeth, contributing to their toothlessness. The published version omits this statement.
The published version concludes that “the men were unusually healthy, judged from both a medical and dental point of view.”