Fluoride, teeth and the A-bomb.
Some 50 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, and revealing a surprising connection between fluoride and the dawning of the nuclear age.
The government's hidden motives behind promoting fluoride as "safe" have not been revealed to the general public, nor to civilian researchers, health professionals or journalists -- until now.
Since the days of WWII, US public health leaders have maintained that low doses of fluoride are safe for people, and good for children's teeth. Today, as a consequence, two-thirds of US public drinking water is fluoridated. But that safety verdict should now be re-examined in light of hundreds of once-secret WWII documents obtained by the authors -- including declassified papers of the Manhattan Project, the US military group that built the atomic bomb.
The papers reveal that fluoride was a key chemical in atomic bomb production. Millions of tons of fluoride were needed to manufacture 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 US atomic bomb program -- both for workers and for nearby communities.
Medical researchers who have reviewed these recently declassified documents fear that Cold War security considerations may have prevented objective and scientific evaluation of fluoride's true impact on public health.
DuPont's Deepwater Disaster
The documentary trail begins at the height of WWII, when a severe pollution incident occurred downwind of the DuPont chemical factory in Deepwater, New Jersey. The factory was then secretly producing millions of pounds of fluoride for the Manhattan Project.
The farms downwind in Gloucester and Salem counties were famous for their high-quality produce but, in the summer of 1943, the farmers began to report that "something is burning up the peach crops around here." Following the accidental chemical release at the DuPont plant, poultry died, and farmworkers who ate the produce vomited all night and into the next day.
"I remember our horses looked sick and were too stiff to work," recalls Mildred Giordano. Some cows were so crippled they could only graze by crawling on their bellies.
Manhattan Project documents reveal that federal officials were secretly alarmed about the New Jersey incident. In a secret Manhattan Project memo dated March 1, 1946, the project's chief of fluoride toxicology studies, Harold C. Hodge, worriedly wrote to his boss, Colonel Stafford L. Warren, about "problems associated with the question of fluoride contamination of the atmosphere in a certain section of New Jersey. There seem to be four distinct (thought related) problems," continued Hodge: "1) A question of injury of the peach crop in 1944; 2) A report of extraordinary fluoride content of vegetables grown in this area; 3) A report of abnormally high fluoride content in the blood of human individuals residing in this area; 4) A report raising the question of serious poisoning of horses and cattle in this area."
Civil Lawsuits: US Conspiracies
The New Jersey farmers waited until WWII was over before filing suit against DuPont and the Manhattan Project for fluoride damage -- reportedly the first lawsuits against the A-bomb program in the US.
The formerly-classified documents show that these lawsuits shook the government. The Manhattan Project's head, Major General Leslie R. Groves, convened secret meetings in Washington, requiring compulsory attendance by scores of scientists and officials from the US War Department, the Manhattan Project, the Food and Drug Administration, the Agriculture and Justice Departments, the US Army's Chemical Warfare Service, Edgewood Arsenal, the Bureau of Standards -- and DuPont lawyers. Declassified memos of the meetings reveal a secret mobilization of the full forces of the government to defeat the New Jersey farmers.
In a memo copied to General Groves, Manhattan Project Lieutenant Colonel Cooper B. Rhodes noted how the various agencies were to be called upon to undertake "scientific investigations to obtain evidence which may be used to protect the interest of the Government at the trial of the suits brought by owners of peach orchards in... New Jersey."
In 1946, the US had begun full-scale production of atomic bombs. The A-bomb was seen as crucial to ensure US leadership of the postwar world: The fluoride lawsuits were a serious roadblock to that strategy.
"If the farmers won, it would open the door to further suits, which might impede the bomb program's ability to use fluoride," said Jacqueline Kittrell, a Tennessee public interest lawyer specializing in nuclear cases, who examined the declassified fluoride documents. She added, "The reports of human injury were especially threatening, because of the potential for enormous settlements -- not to mention the PR problem."
Indeed, DuPont was particularly concerned, according to a secret 1946 Manhattan Project memo. Facing a threat from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to embargo the region's produce because of "high fluoride content," DuPont dispatched its lawyers to the FDA offices in Washington, where an agitated meeting ensued.
According to a memo sent next day to General Groves, DuPont's lawyer argued that "any action by the Food and Drug Administration ... would have a serious effect on the DuPont Company and would create a bad public relations situation." After the meeting adjourned, Manhattan Project Captain John Davies approached the FDA's Food Division chief and "impressed upon Dr. White the substantial interest which the government had in claims which might arise as a result of action which might be taken by the Food and Drug Administration."
There was no embargo. Instead, new tests for fluoride in the New Jersey area would be conducted -- not by the Department of Agriculture, but by the US Army's Chemical Warfare Service because "work done by the Chemical Warfare Service would carry the greatest weight as evidence if ... lawsuits are started by the complainants." The memo was signed by General Groves.
The New Jersey farmers' lawsuits were ultimately stymied by the government's refusal to reveal how much fluoride DuPont had vented into the atmosphere during WWII on the grounds that "Disclosure would be injurious to the military security of the United States." The farmers received token financial settlements, in some cases amounting to little more than $200.
According to the declassified documents, it was Manhattan project fluoride toxicologist Harold C. Hodge who first suggested a broader solution to the public relations problem. In a letter to the Medical Section Chief, Col. Warren Hodge asked: "Would there be any use in making attempts to counteract the local fear of fluoride on the part of residents of Salem and Gloucester counties through lectures on F [fluoride] toxicology, and perhaps the usefulness of F in tooth health?"
The A-Bomb and Fluoridation
Human exposure to fluoride has mushroomed since WWII, and the impact can be seen, literally, in the smiles of our children. Large numbers of US young people -- up to 80 percent in some cities -- now have dental fluorosis, the first visible sign of excessive fluoride exposure, according to the US National Research Council. (The signs are whitish flecks or spots, particularly on the front teeth, or dark spots or stripes in more severe cases.)
"The teeth are, windows to what's happening in the bones," explains Paul Connett, Professor of Chemistry at St. Lawrence University (NY). In recent years, pediatric bone specialists have expressed alarm about an increase in stress fractures among US youth. Connett and other scientists are concerned that fluoride -- linked to bone damage by studies since the 1930's -- may be a contributing factor.
Bomb-program scientists played a prominent -- though unpublicized -- role in the nation's first planned water fluoridation experiment, which took place in Newburgh, New York.
Planning began in 1943 with the appointment of a special New York State Health Department committee to study the advisability of adding fluoride to Newburgh's drinking water. The chairman of the committee was the Manhattan Project's Dr. Hodge.
Subsequent members included other leading members of the Pentagon group that sired the Manhattan Project. Their military affiliations were kept secret. Hodge was described as a pharmacologist, Barnett as a pediatrician.
The committee recommended that Newburgh be fluoridated. The key question to be answered was: "Are there any cumulative effects -- beneficial or otherwise, on tissues and organs other than the teeth ... ?" According to the documents, this was key information sought by the Pentagon, whose atomic bomb program would require continued exposure of workers and communities to fluoride throughout the Cold War.
In May 1945, Newburgh's water was fluoridated, and over the next ten years its residents were studied by the New York State Health Department. In tandem, Program F conducted its own secret studies, focusing on the amounts of fluoride Newburgh citizens retained in their blood and tissues. Health Department personnel cooperated, shipping blood and placenta samples to the Program F team at the University of Rochester.
The final report of the Newburgh Demonstration Project, published in the 1956 Journal of the American Dental Association, concluded that "small concentrations" of fluoride were safe for US citizens. The biological proof -- "based on work performed... at the University of Rochester Atomic Energy Project" -- was delivered by none other than Dr. Hodge.
The University of Rochester
Much of the proof of fluoride's safety in low doses rests on the postwar work performed by the University of Rochester, in anticipation of lawsuits against the bomb program for human injury. The university medical school's postwar faculty included Harold Hodge and Stafford Warren, the Manhattan Project's top medical officer.
A secret 1945 Manhattan Project memo to General Groves stated: "Because of complaints that animals and humans have been injured by hydrogen fluoride fumes in [the New Jersey] area..., the University of Rochester is conducting experiments to determine the toxic effect of fluoride."
During the war, the prestigious upstate New York college had housed a clandestine division of the Manhattan Project that studied the health effects of the new "special materials" -- uranium, plutonium, beryllium and fluoride -- used to make the atomic bomb. The work continued after the war, with millions of dollars flowing from the Manhattan Project and its successor organization, the Atomic Energy, Commission (AEC).
The University of Rochester's classified fluoride studies -- code named Program F were conducted at its top-secret Atomic Energy Project (AEP) facility, which was funded by the AEC and housed in Strong Memorial Hospital -- the same facility where unsuspecting patients were injected with toxic doses of radioactive plutonium.
Program F was not about children's teeth. It's purpose, as spelled out in a classified 1948 report, was: "To supply evidence useful in the litigation arising from an alleged loss of a fruit crop several years ago.... Since excessive blood fluoride levels were reported in human residents of the same area, our principal effort has been devoted to describing the relationship of blood fluorides to toxic effects."
The potential conflict of interest is clear. If lower dose ranges were found to be hazardous, it might have opened the bomb program and its contractors to lawsuits.
Unfortunately, much of the proof of fluoride's safety rests on the work performed by Program F scientists at the University of Rochester. During the postwar period the university emerged as the leading academic center for establishing the safety of fluoride, as well as its effectiveness in reducing tooth decay. The key figure in this research was Harold C. Hodge.
Program F's interest in water fluoridation was not just "to counteract the local fear of fluoride on the part of residents," as Hodge had earlier written. The bomb program needed human studies, just as they had needed human studies for plutonium. Adding fluoride to public water supplies provided this opportunity.
The Newburgh Files
Today, news that scientists from the atomic bomb program secretly shaped and guided the nation's first fluoridation experiment and studied the citizen's blood and tissue samples, is greeted with incredulity.
"I'm shocked -- beyond words," says Newburgh's current mayor, Audrey Carey, responding to these reporters' findings. "It reminds me of the Tuskegee experiment that was done on syphilis patients down in Alabama."
As a child in the early 1950's, Mayor Carey was taken to the old firehouse in Newburgh, which housed the Public Health Clinic where doctors from the fluoridation project studied her teeth. Today, Carey's granddaughter has white dental-fluorosis marks on her front teeth.
The director of the Newburgh experiment, David B. Ast, told these reporters that he was unaware that Manhattan Project scientists were involved. "If I had known, I would have been certainly investigating why, and what the connection was," he said.
Did he know that blood and placenta samples from Newburgh were being sent to bomb program researchers at the University of Rochester? "I was not aware of it," Ast replied.
Did he recall participating in the Manhattan Project's secret wartime conference on fluoride in January 1944, or going to New Jersey with Dr. Hodge to investigate human injury in the DuPont case -- as secret memos state? He told the reporters he had no recollection of these events.
Fluoride on the Brain
An April 29, 1944 Manhattan Project memo contained a chilling warning: "Clinical evidence suggests that uranium hexafluoride may have a rather marked central nervous system [CNS] effect.... It seems most likely that the F [fluoride] component rather than the T [code for uranium] is the causative factor."
The memo -- stamped "secret" -- was addressed to the head of the Manhattan Project's Medical Section, Colonel Stafford Warren. Colonel Warren was asked to approve a program of animal research on CNS effects since it was deemed important "to prevent a confused workman from injuring others by improperly performing his duties."
Colonel Warren immediately approved the CNS research program. For research on fluoride's CNS effects to be approved at the height of WWII, the supporting evidence set forth in the proposal must have been persuasive. Unfortunately, the proposal is missing from the files of the National Archives and no evidence of the Manhattan Project's fluoride-CNS research could be found in the files.
"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 conducted by Mullenix and coworkers in the early 1990's indicated that fluoride was a powerful central nervous system toxin that might adversely affect human brain functioning, even at low doses. (Recent epidemiological evidence from China has found a correlation between low-dose fluoride exposure and diminished IQ in children.)
During her research, Mullenix was astonished to discover that there had been virtually no previous US studies of fluoride's effects on the human brain. Her application for a grant to continue her research was rejected by the US National Institutes of Health, which flatly told her that "fluoride does not have central nervous system effects."
After reviewing the memos, Mullenix declared herself "flabbergasted." She suspects that the Manhattan Project did conduct fluoride-CNS studies but that the results were buried because they might create legal and public relations problems for the government.
The 1944 proposal for conducting CNS research was authored by Dr. Harold C. Hodge. Nearly 50 years later, Hodge served as a consultant on Mullenix's CNS studies. "But he never once mentioned the CNS work he had done for the Manhattan Project," she states.
Fluoride's Censored Dangers
Were adverse health findings from Newburgh and other bomb-program fluoride studies suppressed? All AEC-funded studies had to be declassified before publication in civilian medical and dental journals. Where are the original classified versions?
* The transcript of one of the major secret WWII scientific conferences on "fluoride metabolism" is missing from the US National Archives. Participants in the conference included Harold Hodge, David B. Ast of the Newburgh Project, and US Public Health Service dentist H. Trendley Dean, popularly known as the "father of fluoridation." National Archives librarians told these reporters, "If it is missing from the files, it is probably still classified.
* A 1944 Manhattan Project classified report on water fluoridation is missing from the files of the University of Rochester Atomic Energy Project, the US National Archives, and the Nuclear Repository at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
* The next four numerically consecutive documents are also missing. "Either those documents are still classified, or they've been `disappeared' by the government," says Clifford Honicker, Executive Director of the American Environmental Health Studies Project in Knoxville, Tennessee.
* Seven pages have been cut out of a 1941 Rochester bomb-project notebook entitled "Du Pont litigation." "Most unusual," commented Chief Medical School Archivist Chris Holihan.
* Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to the Department of Energy over a year ago seeking hundreds of classified fluoride reports have failed to dislodge any.
These reporters made what appears to be the first discovery of the original classified version of a fluoride safety study that was later published in the August 1948 Journal of the American Dental Association. Comparison of the secret with the published version indicates that the AEC did censor damaging information on fluoride -- to the point of tragicomedy.
The study addressed the dental and physical health of workers in a factory producing fluoride for the A-bomb program.
* The published version reports only that the men had fewer cavities. The secret version reports that most of the men had no teeth left.
* 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.
Dr. Harold Slavkin, Director of the National Institute for Dental Research (the US agency that funds fluoride research) insists that fluoride's efficacy and safety in the prevention of dental cavities over the last 50 years is well-proven.
"The motivation of a scientist is often different from the outcome," he reflected. "I do not hold a prejudice about where the knowledge comes from."
After comparing the secret and published versions of the censored study, Phyllis Mullenix commented, "This makes me ashamed to be a scientist."
Fluoride: Where Does It Come From? What Does It Do?
Fluoride comes from fluorine, an elemental gas that Webster's describes as pale, yellowish, flammable, irritating and toxic.
In 1977, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) published the following information on fluorine:
"Fluorine and some of its compounds are primary irritants of skin, eyes, mucous membranes and lungs. Thermal or chemical burns may result from contact.... Even when they involve small body areas (less than 3 percent) [fluoride] can cause ... poisoning by absorption of the fluoride through the skin." Brief exposure to inhaled fluorine can cause "sore throat, chest pain, irreversible damage to the lungs and death. Gastrointestinal symptoms of nausea, vomiting, diffuse abdominal cramps and diarrhea can be expected. Large doses produce central nervous system involvement with twitching of muscle groups..., convulsions and coma."
Fluorine is the active ingredient in Sarin (the nerve gas used to deadly effect in a March 1995 Tokyo that, in the early '90s, caused crop damage and human ailments in 40 states).
"Hydrogen fluoride, hydrofluoric acid and its salts are used in the production of organic and inorganic fluorine compounds such as fluorides and plastics; as a catalyst, in the petroleum industry; and as an insecticide..." the NIOSH report continues. "It is utilized in the aluminum industry, in separating uranium isotopes, in cleaning cast iron, copper and brass.... Fluorides are used as an electrolyte in aluminum manufacture, in smelting nickel, copper, gold and silver, as a catalyst for organic reactions, a wood preservative..., a bleaching agent for cane seats, in pesticides, rodenticides, and as a fermentation inhibitor. They are utilized in the manufacture of steel, iron, glass, ceramics, pottery, enamels, in castings for welding rods, and in cleaning graphite, metals, windows and glassware. Exposure to fluorides may also occur during preparation of fertilizer from phosphate rock."
NIOSH noted that elemental fluorine is also used "in the conversion of uranium tetrafluoride to uranium hexafluoride, in the synthesis of organic and inorganic fluorine compounds and as an oxidizer in rocket fuel." Today, compounds made with this chemical can be found in everyday products ranging from Teflon and Freon to toothpaste and baby food.
Fluorides are industrial waste products created in the production of aluminum, phosphoric acid and phosphate fertilizers.
Some 55 years after DuPont began producing uranium hexafluoride for the Manhattan Project, the company still heavily invests in fluorine. DuPont uses it to make a number of consumer products, including Tedlar[R] polyvinyl fluoride film and Viton[R] fluorocarbon rubber.
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|Title Annotation:||includes related articles|
|Author:||Griffiths, Joel; Bryson, Chris|
|Publication:||Earth Island Journal|
|Article Type:||Cover Story|
|Date:||Dec 22, 1997|
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