The Placebo of Public Water Fluoridation

copyright © 2002 Daniel A. Montgomery

Before I was drafted into the U.S. Army in October, 1968, I seldom used fluoride toothpaste and never drank fluoridated water. My military training was at Fort Lewis, Washington and the water supply at Fort Lewis was not fluoridated at that time. When I arrived in Vietnam in April, 1970, the Army Dental Corps was just starting a new program to be sure that all military personnel were getting sufficient fluoride to prevent cavities. The soldiers in the field had too many cavities and this was the cause of too many trips to base camp for dental appointments. A special branch of the Dental Corps known as Team KJ took charge of administering a high strength fluoride toothpaste that would confer protection from cavities for six months to every new soldier who came "in country." Accordingly, one of my first duties when I arrived in Vietnam was to go to a large room full of long metal sinks, reminiscent of cattle troughs, and brush my teeth with the toothpaste from one small tube of toothpaste for at least five minutes by the clock in unison with all the other soldiers filling the room. For the next few months, all went well, but then my teeth began to hurt. The pain seemed to be coming from the place where the gums and teeth meet. I obtained some fluoride toothpaste, which was not hard to do because it was distributed free in the field, and brushed my teeth every day. This seemed to help and I considered myself fortunate to have fluoride toothpaste.

About eight months later, I was once again in base camp and it was time for my fluoride rinse. I went to another one of those rooms with the sinks with a crowd of soldiers and duly performed my duty to brush my teeth with the high strength fluoride toothpaste. A few weeks later, my teeth began to ache. The gums seemed to be inflamed. I brushed my teeth more acciduously with fluoride toothpaste, but it didn't seem to make much difference. I attributed the painful dental problem to poor diet or maybe just being in Vietnam. I thought I must not be getting enough fluoride. In those days, they said fluoride was a "mineral nutrient."

When I returned from my year in Vietnam, my last six months in the Army were at Fort Lewis, Washington. One day, about two months before I was discharged, the medics came around and offered that fluoride rinse with the little tubes of sweet tasting high strength toothpaste to us. I was assigned to the Third Air Cavalry and we brushed our teeth outdoors in front of the battalion headquarters. For the next few weeks, I did not feel well. I was tired and did not concentrate well. The pain in my teeth and gums came back. These symptoms gradually went away, but a few weeks before I left Fort Lewis, I started noticing that every time I drank any water I had excruciating pain in my gums and teeth. I asked the medics if there might be a trace contaminant in the toothpaste that could cause this. They laughed and said I wasn't getting enough fluoride. I learned quickly not to drink the water. I bought my own bottled water and smuggled it into my locker. I tried taking calcium tablets and they seemed to help as long as I didn't drink more of the Army's water. During the last two weeks of my stay at Fort Lewis, I quit eating the food in the mess hall if it looked like it had been made with water. I bought food at the PX with my own money.

I went to visit my family in Seattle and noticed that their drinking water also caused painful teeth and gums. I suggested that there might be an unknown toxic chemical in the water supplies in the area. They assured me that the pain was not likely to have been caused by anything in the water. They drank the water and felt no pain. The city of Seattle had started fluoridating its water while I was gone overseas and we were fortunate to have fluoridated water, they said.

When I got out of the Army, I went to college in a small town far away from home where it happened by accident of history that the water was not fluoridated. All went well for a few months. I made a dental appointment to have some cavities filled. The dentist sternly told me that if I had been getting enough fluoride I would not have had these cavities. He persuaded me to let him put a fluoride gel on my teeth that would protect them for another six months. That night, after he put that gel on my teeth, there was a throbbing pain in my teeth. It lasted many days. I became tired and weak and spent much time in bed. My pulse rate was much lower than normal. I could not concentrate on my studies for a couple of weeks. After that, my teeth became very sensitive to fluoridated water and the sensitivity has never gone away. I complained to the dentist that the gel had made me sick. He insisted that whatever pain I had could not be caused by the gel and that my symptoms were likely caused by the supposed stress of getting out of the Army and studying too hard. During the next few months, I examined my teeth carefully in the mirror and noticed that there were little cracks and pits that hadn't been there before. As I was to learn later, these are signs of what is called "mild fluorosis." I did succeed in staying in school and I never went back to that dentist. Some people tried to tell me that all the statistics proved that fluoride is harmless. I am not a statistic. I am an individual.

As the years went by, I learned which cities were fluoridated and which were unfluoridated as I traveled. Sometimes I would call the water department and they wouldn't tell me whether the town was fluoridated or not, but I could always tell if it was. I learned to take just one tiny sip of water and wait and see what it did. Later, I got a big blue book from the U.S. Public Health Service which listed every fluoridated city in the United States. It always confirmed my sip of water test. I learned to read the labels on prepared foods in the supermarket. If the product was from a small supplier in a town that was known to be unfluoridated, I could be reasonably certain that I could eat the food or beverage safely. Sometimes I guesssed wrong and then I had another episode of painful gums and teeth. Eventually, it became apparent that my periodontal bone, that part of the jaw bone that holds the teeth, was receding. This loss of bone is aggravated by any exposure to fluoride.

New studies have shown that public water fluoridation causes many cases of hip fractures. Fluoride hardens the enamel of the teeth and in this way seems to prevent cavities for a while, but eventually it causes the bones to become brittle and deteriorate. Through two years of pain, I kept thinking that fluoride was good for me. I wanted to think that fluoride was good for me. I was a victim of the placebo effect. The word placebo comes from a Latin word meaning "I will please." It means that when the doctor gives us a medication we often think that we feel better already simply because we want to please the doctor. Fluoridation is one of the great placebos of modern times.

September 23, 1995

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