For a large swath of conspiracy theorists, September was one hell of a month. A brand-new study seemed to show that fluoride, the chemical found in drinking water and toothpaste, could lower infants’ IQ.
Truthers were thrilled — it was a missing link they’d been seeking, the tin-hat cherry on top of a pile of “evidence” they’d collected suggesting that fluoride, ostensibly meant to help strengthen our teeth, could actually be part of a secret government plot to poison us.
The study, published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, was held in Mexico and conducted with fluoridated salt, not fluoridated water. The United States doesn’t fluoridate salt. Still, a misleading takeaway — that fluoride in tap water poisons kids — went viral after the study was written up in sites like CNN and Newsweek, whose headline made the baseless claim that “Children’s IQ Could Be Lowered by Mothers Drinking Tap Water While Pregnant.” The misinformation spread from there.
In the modern era of “fake news,” conspiracy theorists seem more outspoken than ever, emboldened by the flood of viral misinformation to spread their fringe beliefs throughout Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other networks. We spoke to a representative from the American Dental Association, the director of the Fluoride Action Network and other people who identify as fluoride truthers to figure out why this particular theory has gained such a cult following.
It turns out there’s much more drama in the community than we thought — and at least one anti-fluoride expert is unhappy with the direction the movement is headed.
What fluoride truthers believe
At least thousands of people across the U.S. believe the government is putting fluoride in our community water to poison us, lower our IQ, make us less fertile and control our minds. Many believe it’s just one part of a massive government conspiracy to keep Americans under the government’s thumb. Conspiracy-hawking commentators often bait this group with outrageous televised claims, lending plausibility to unsubstantiated fringe beliefs.
“What do you think tap water is? It’s a gay bomb, baby!” — Alex Jones
“What do you think tap water is? It’s a gay bomb, baby,” infamous conspiracy theorist Alex Jones once said. “I don’t like them putting chemicals in the water that turn the friggin’ frogs gay!” Jones is one of the most prominent fluoride truthers; he has claimed on multiple occasions that the U.S. government puts fluoride in the water to make people gay and poison them. He even sells his own brand of fluoride-free toothpaste on his website. Jones claims to be a friend and adviser to President Donald Trump. (We reached out to Jones and will update with any response.)
Is there any basis to their claims? And what is fluoride, anyway?
Fluoride is found in a bunch of different minerals that naturally occur on Earth. Fluoride compounds are found in most toothpaste. The government also puts fluoride into much of the country’s community drinking water, as it has been proven to fight tooth decay, according to the American Dental Association. The government started putting fluoride in drinking water in 1945.
“Studies prove water fluoridation continues to be effective in reducing dental decay by 20% to 40%,” the ADA wrote in 2005. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wrote that adding fluoride to community water was one of the top 10 great public health achievements in the 20th century, along with “motor vehicle safety” and “tobacco as a health hazard.”
Despite all of this evidence, there is a huge movement to remove fluoride from our drinking water.
There’s even a nonprofit organization called the Fluoride Action Network that’s devoted to warning people of fluoride’s potential side effects. Its website is full of claims labeled “quick facts,” such as “50 studies have linked fluoride with reduced IQ in children,” and “Most developed nations, including all of Japan and 97% of western Europe, do not fluoridate their water.” The group also claims fluoride can cause early puberty in girls and that it calcifies the pineal gland — a gland responsible for producing things like melatonin, which helps you sleep.
The internet is full of anti-fluoride communities. In addition to the Fluoride Action Network, there are countless fluoride truthers on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube. Here’s what they told us.
Fluoride truthers, in their own words
“I’m honestly a truther,” David Burton, a 32-year-old pipe fitter from North Carolina, said by phone. “If you go down my Twitter page, I’m part of what would be referred to as the truther community.”
Burton, like most fluoride truthers, believes that the chemical affects the body’s pineal gland and brain function. “I actually think it has a lot to do with why the world is headed in the direction it’s headed,” Burton said. “We’re surrounded by hate and violence and everything else. They actually refer to the pineal gland as ‘the seat of the soul.’ I’m not a religious person; I’m a spiritual person. I have a lot of spiritual beliefs when it comes to the pineal gland.”
Fluoride is just the beginning for Burton, though. About halfway through our conversation, Burton said he had scrolled through my Twitter and noticed that I was Jewish. “I want to point out to you, I believe Zionism is a very dangerous thing in our world,” he said. “But I don’t think it has anything to do with the Jewish people. That’s kind of one of the truther things that I deal with.”
He went on to say he believes the Holocaust happened but that Zionists “played a key role” in it.
A Twitter search of the hashtag ”#Fluoride” brings up thousands of tweets, memes, photos and links in which people argue that fluoride is dangerous and should be removed from public water.
“The only proposed benefit for consuming fluoride isn’t even scientifically supported,” a man who goes by Ben Long said in a Twitter message. (Long is also a flat-Earth truther.) “There’s science to support that fluoride actually weakens tooth enamel. If people believe it protect their teeth … and want to risk their heart/brain/skeletal/digestive health for that, good luck with that. But the science doesn’t support that.
“Drink clean water, not mean water,” he added.
“Drink clean water, not mean water.”
What dental experts say
“There is an enormous amount of misinformation about fluoride, which is very sad because it is the single most effective thing we can do for communities,” Dr. Ed Hewlett, professor and associate dean for outreach and diversity at UCLA School of Dentistry and spokesperson for the American Dental Association, said in a phone interview. “It’s the single most effective public health measure to prevent tooth decay.”
In our conversation, Hewlett referred to a 2012 Harvard University study that many fluoride truthers use to bolster their argument that fluoride lowers IQ. That study reports that children who lived in areas where water fluoridation was higher tended to have lower IQ scores. Hewlett called fluoride truthers’ use of this data “a misinterpretation of the results.” He said it’s easy to take the study’s results out of context and use it to fit your own narrative.
“It’s the single most effective public health measure to prevent tooth decay.” — Dr. Ed Hewlett
“It’s important to point out that when we talk about fluoridation of community water, we’re talking about a miniscule amount, and there is no question that at that amount, there is no adverse effect on the rest of the body,” Hewlett said. “What we’re talking about there is 0.7 parts per million. A similar scale would be about 1 inch out of 23 miles or one day out of 1,000 days, 2.5 years. At that level, there is no risk whatsoever. And we’ve got 70 years of research and science behind this.”
And the research keeps rolling in.
Experts respond to the viral fluoride study
After that study on fluoridated salt was published, the ADA responded with a piece of its own, criticizing the study’s methods.
“Because it is unknown how the subjects of the study ingested the fluoride — whether through salt, water or both — no conclusions can be drawn regarding the effects of community water fluoridation in the U.S.,” the ADA’s statement read. Moreover, according to the ADA, the best available scientific evidence shows no association between the U.S.-recommended amount of fluoride used to prevent tooth decay and IQ.
Not all of people against fluoride are “truthers”
“Conspiracy theorists, unfortunately, are our worst enemy,” Bill Osmunson, a 67-year-old dentist in Washington state and director of the Fluoride Action Network, said by phone. “They’re the ones who agree with us, but their other beliefs tend to cause problems. It’s the conspiracy theorists that are opposed to fluoridation, and that’s part of our problem.”
“Conspiracy theorists, unfortunately, are our worst enemy.” — Bill Osmunson, director of the Fluoride Action Network
According to its website, the Fluoride Action Network “seeks to broaden awareness about the toxicity of fluoride compounds among citizens, scientists, and policymakers alike.” It has been lobbying against fluoridation for more than a decade.
“I agree with the public health position that on a highly contagious, lethal disease that governments have full control to do virtually anything to the public,” Osmunson said.
“However, dental caries is not highly contagious and it’s not lethal,” he said. Caries is the medical term for tooth or bone decay.
Osmunson believes the sugar industry had a big hand in putting fluoride in community water. He could be right. Some research has been done on the sugar industry’s historical impact on water fluoridation, showing that the sugar industry may have influenced the National Institutes of Health to limit its research on how to prevent cavities caused by sugar in the 1950s.
Hewlett credits the rise in fluoride trutherism to another formative event of the 1950s — the Red Scare. “Community water fluoridation was positioned as a Communist plot,” he said.
In the 1950s, a group of people really did believe that water fluoridation was “an actual Communist plot to destroy America,” Robert D. Johnston writes in his book The Politics of Healing: Histories of Alternative Medicine in Twentieth-Century North America. According to these people, “fluoridation was actually a weapon being used by communists to attempt to kill literally millions of Americans,” Johnston writes. That belief had fallen out of favor among conspiracy theorists by the early ’60s, according to Johnston.
“There’s a lot of information out there, and it’s confusing to know what to believe,” Hewlett said. “I get that. But there’s such vehemence and the vilification of the truth by individuals around a topic that is really about health promotion at a community level. It’s about health equity.”
Correction: Oct. 23, 2017
An earlier version of this article misidentified the amount of fluoride in community water. The recommended amount is around 0.7 parts per million.