NEARLY four decades after the battle erupted over fluoridating the water to combat tooth decay, the issue rarely makes news. But it continues to simmer. A recent special report in the American Chemical Society's weekly Chemical and Engineering News documents growing concern about the health risks of fluoridation. There is also continuing debate about the morality of imposing medication through the water supply. And there is growing awareness of one of the lesser-known scientific scandals - the suppression in the United States (and sometimes elsewhere) of research questioning fluoridation and persecution of scientists who ``get out of line.''
As the report notes: ``There is hardly ... an expert in the field who seems not to be adamantly pro- or antifluoridation. Neither side seems willing to listen to the other. Neither seems able to engage the other in constructive debate.''
The report goes on to cite the scientific evidence that raises questions about health risks. ``Journal editors often have refused for political reasons to publish information that raises questions about fluoridation,'' the report says. It cites instances in which official agencies have prevented researchers from publishing such findings and have harassed ``antifluoridation'' scientists.
Regardless of other issues involved, politicization of science is a public disgrace. It places propaganda above scientific objectivity. It debases the democratic process by misinforming the public. And it disserves the true purpose of public health policy, which is to determine public health risks and avert them.
This situation seems ripe for change. Most trace elements in the diet that have good and bad aspects are clearly beneficial in small amounts while being harmful at known higher concentrations. Fluoride is unusual in that its purported beneficial effect in cutting tooth decay takes place at concentrations that also raise health risks - that is, at about one part per million in drinking water. As concern about contaminants in the water has grown, so too has concern about the risk side of fluoridation, focusing new attention on the wisdom of this practice.
While fluoridation has cut tooth decay substantially in the United States and there is little sign of health problems for most of the US population (about 50 percent) using fluoridated water, as the Chemical Society's publication notes, ``that isn't the entire story.'' The report explains: ``There is some evidence that the reduction in cavities in areas that use unfluoridated water may have been as great as in fluoridated areas. ... [And] there are indications that the recommended level of artificial fluoridation ... leaves little margin of safety for potentially more susceptible elements of the population.''
It's time to depolarize this issue and depoliticize the science involved. Adequate research on long-term health effects of fluoridation is overdue. And objections to forcible medication need to be given more consideration. After all, in some 60 percent of the roughly 2,000 fluoridation referendums held in the US since 1950 voters said ``no.'' And Denmark abandoned fluoridation partly over concern about compulsory medication.
But nothing will be achieved while ``pros'' and ``antis'' merely attack each other with religious fervor. Both public safety and good democratic practice demand that, after 38 years of acrimony, passion be put aside and constructive dialogue begin.
A Tuesday column. Robert C. Cowen is the Monitor's natural science editor.