fluoride: (mis)information

stylized drawing of a tooth, with the text: "fluoride: (mis)information"

We invite members from across the University of Windsor campus, and the greater Windsor-Essex community, to drop by and visit our latest exhibit. Located on the main floor of the Leddy Library, learn about how information is used and misused in the very public controversy over community water fluoridation programs.

The question to fluoridate water is back at city councils in Windsor-Essex, years after many councils had voted to end the public health intervention against tooth decay. The Windsor-Essex County Health Unit, citing a 51% increase in tooth problems in children, is recommending the reintroduction of water fluoridation. Windsor has voted to reimplement it, but the neighbouring municipalities which also receive water from Windsor will have to agree to it.

What is fluoride?

Fluoride, an ion of the chemical element fluorine, is an abundant substance found naturally in water. It has properties that help prevent tooth decay.

Water fluoridation

Fluoride is not always found naturally in water in quantities high enough to protect teeth. Community water fluoridation programs increase the concentration of fluoride in drinking water to a level sufficient to help reduce dental decay.

Scientific research on this public health intervention shows that water fluoridation programs reduce tooth decay among children, protects adults’ teeth, helps to close the gap in decay rates across socioeconomic groups, and saves governments money by reducing the need for dental treatments. 

A question of (mis)information

Among the scientific community, there is a consensus that fluoridated water is effective and safe, posing no health risks outside of mild-staining of teeth at extremely high concentrations. Water fluoridation programs are supported by almost every major health organization in Canada and the US, and the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit claims that four out of five people support fluoridation. So why the constant public debate over fluoride? 

Studies on fluoride information on the internet report that anti-fluoridation information significantly dominates on the internet, and especially on social media (Mertz & Allukian, 2014). The information found on these websites and social media platforms often don't represent water fluoridation in an unbiased manner, and do so with the purpose of misinforming readers.

Common tactics used to misinform 

A study reviewing antifluoridationist literature uncovered the most common tactics that are used to mislead readers of fluoride information (Armfield, 2007).

Selective reporting
Selective reporting of studies and of the results in the studies is a common strategy in anti-fluoridation research available online. There are hundreds of studies published in the scientific literature every year on the effect of fluoride on humans and animals. Instead of discerning an outcome across all studies, antifluoridationists will handpick studies that [they view] support their views while ignoring the majority of studies that support fluoridation.

Fear mongering
Water fluoridation opponents will often produce information that associates fluoridation with dangerous or fearful consequences. Fluoride has been linked, in antifluoridation literature, to allergies, neurodegenerative disorders, arthritis, kidney diseases, endocrine disorders, AIDS and even tooth decay. Sufficient scientific evidence has not been able to support these claims, yet they are common in antifluoridation information.

Half-truths
A statement that is only partly true, and is generally intended to deceive and associate fluoride with fearful consequences. For example, fluoride is extracted from phosphate rock and much of that rock is later used to create ingredients for food and soil fertilizers. Antifluoridation information online often uses this to claim that fluoride comes from fertilizer as a waste byproduct. 

Stay skeptical

When you come across information, especially on topics such as fluoridation and vaccination, it is important to stay skeptical of the information that you come across. Question what you come across:

Authority

  • Who is the author, publisher, source or sponsor?
  • What are the author’s credentials?
  • Are they qualified to write on the topic?
  • Is there contact information?

Accuracy

  • Where does the information come from?
  • Is the information supported by evidence?
  • Has the information been reviewed or refereed?
  • Can you verify any of the information in another source, or in the original cited source?

Purpose

  • What is the purpose of the information? Inform, teach, sell, entertain or persuade?
  • Do the authors make their intentions or purpose clear?
  • Is the information fact, opinion or propaganda?
  • Does the point of view appear objective and impartial?
  • Are there biases apparent in the information?

The exhibit

Drop by and learn about the role of information in the controversy surrounding water fluoridation programs. Take a look inside the minds of medical professionals, and find out how they make use of information to inform their decision making. Learn how to recognize common tactics used to mislead people and strategies that you can employ to be more critical of the information that you read.

Participate in the conversation on public (mis)understanding of science by leaving us a post-it note, and pick up a book on your way out on the nature of science and pseudoscience.

Further reading

Water fluoridation

Misinformation and science

  • Armfield, J. M. (2007). When public action undermines public health: a critical examination of antifluoridationist literature. Australia and New Zealand Health Policy, 4(1), 25. https://doi.org/10.1186/1743-8462-4-25
  • Wilson, K., & Keelan, J. (2013). Social media and the empowering of opponents of medical technologies: the case of anti-vaccinationism. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 15(5), e103. https://doi.org/10.2196/jmir.2409
  • Kata, A. (2012). Anti-vaccine activists, Web 2.0, and the postmodern paradigm – An overview of tactics and tropes used online by the anti-vaccination movement. Vaccine, 30(25), 3778–3789. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.vaccine.2011.11.112
  • Mertz, A., & Allukian, M. (2014) Community water fluoridation on the internet and social media. Journal of the Massachusetts Dental Society.

Learn more about science services and support at Leddy Library.

Tag for post: