Throughout the fifty years that fluoridation has been controversial in the United States, the antifluoridation movement has been receptive to conspiracy theories because the basic premise of the movement has been that there is sufficient scientific evidence to prove that fluoridation is either dangerous or ineffective, and that the promoters of fluoridation know this.
Blaming the promotion of fluoridation on a conspiracy has been one way antifluoridationists have tried to explain efforts to promote fluoridation despite their evidence. As part of their theories, opponents of fluoridation also often rejected the official version of how fluoridation was discovered.
According to promoters of fluoridation, a dentist in Colorado discovered that excess fluoride in drinking water discolored teeth. When the United States Public Health Service (USPHS) attempted to confirm his observations, they discovered that low levels of fluoride did not cause discoloration but in fact inhibited tooth decay.
Even when antifluoridationists accepted this version of history, to support their theories they cited the role that alleged conspirators, such as the federal government, played in the discovery. Although antifluoridationists shared similar views about the dangers of fluoride and questioned its origins, they disagreed on who was responsible for the promotion of fluoridation, and their motivation for promoting it.
In the 1950s, during the McCarthy era, some antifluoridationists believed that fluoridation was part of a Communist plot to destroy the United States. All of these antifluoridationists rejected the official history of fluoridation’s discovery, but disagreed over how fluoridation was actually discovered. Some believed the Nazis in 1930s Germany had discovered that fluoridation made those drinking it docile and easily controlled.
The Nazis had allegedly used it in concentration camps and to stifle opposition in their campaigns against Poland and Czechoslovakia. Other antifluoridationists claimed fluoridation caused sterility, and was used by the Nazis in Eastern Europe as part of their plan to eliminate local populations and replace them with German settlers.
According to this theory, Soviet scientists learned about the uses of fluoridation either through meetings with the German General Staff during the brief period of time between the signing of the Nazi-Soviet nonaggression pact of 1939 and the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 or when the Soviet army overran Eastern Europe in the final days of World War II.
Some antifluoridationists did not speculate on the origins of fluoridation, but focused on how the Soviet Union had used fluoridation in its prisoner-of-war camps and gulags during World War II to keep their prisoners docile.
As proof that the Soviet Union had used fluoridation during World War II, these antifluoridationists cited the memoirs of a soldier who claimed that during the war he witnessed numerous lend-lease shipments of fluorides to the Soviet Union for the purpose of controlling prisoners.
Antifluoridationists who believed the promotion of fluoridation was a Communist plot considered three possible motives. Some believed that fluoridation would weaken Americans’ mental abilities and their will to resist communism, preparing the way for a political takeover of the United States.
Others believed that fluoridation was the first step toward a military invasion of the United States. Communist saboteurs would slip into water-treatment plants in key cities and military bases across the country and use the fluoridation equipment to dump a lethal dose of fluoride into the drinking water, paving the way for a Soviet invasion.
Another version of this theory held that fluoridation would cause cancers and other diseases, particularly in children, so that in ten or twenty years, when the Soviet Union attacked, the United States would not have enough healthy men to raise an army for national defense.
Some antifluoridationists suggested that the ultimate goal of fluoridation was not simply the destruction of the United States, but the poisoning of all human beings in preparation for their replacement by a new kind of human being specially bred by the Soviets.
Antifluoridationists who believed fluoridation was a Communist conspiracy were never a very large segment of the antifluoridation movement, although they were extremely vocal. They reflected the general atmosphere of the 1950s, when many Americans worried that the federal government and society had been infiltrated by Communist agents and were concerned about the possibility of military conflict with the Soviet Union.
As those concerns lessened in the late 1950s and early 1960s, antifluoridationists believing in these conspiracies diminished in importance in the movement, although profluoridationists continued to stress their views as a way of discrediting all antifluoridationists. Antifluoridationists who believed in a Communist conspiracy came to be seen as humorous and absurd, not only among profluoridationists, but also in the broader society.
The best example of this image can be seen in the black comedy Dr Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1964), a movie in which a madcap U.S. general initiates a nuclear war because he believes that the Soviet Union is poisoning the United States through fluoridation.
After the Communist conspiracy faded away, two other conspiracy theories gained prominence within the movement: one claiming the promotion of fluoridation was a conspiracy by businesses interests; the other identifying the federal government as the force behind the conspiracy.
Each of these groups was identified as the source of the money to fund scientific research favorable to fluoridation and finance campaigns encouraging communities to adopt fluoridation. Sometimes these two groups, business interests and the federal government, were considered to be working together in the conspiracy.
For some antifluoridationists who blamed the promotion of fluoridation on business interests, the primary conspirator behind the promotion of fluoridation was the aluminum industry, particularly the biggest corporation in the industry, the Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA). ALCOA was promoting fluoridation as a way to dispose profitably of the fluoride compounds that were a waste product of the aluminum manufacturing process.
As proof of this conspiracy, antifluoridationists noted that an ALCOA chemist had assisted the Colorado dentist in some of his water tests leading to the discovery of fluoride. They also believed it was not a coincidence that Oscar Ewing, head of the government agency responsible for initiating the promotion of fluoridation in the 1950s, had previously been a high-level lawyer for ALCOA.
In the 1960s and 1970s, when environmental issues became a concern in the United States, some antifluoridationists argued that ALCOA was using fluoridation not only as a disposal method, but also as a way of undermining environmentalists’ efforts to stop industrial pollution.
These antifluoridationists reasoned that if ALCOA could win widespread acceptance of the idea that fluoride in drinking water was safe, it could argue that there was nothing wrong with the company releasing those compounds from its factories into the environment.
Other antifluoridationists expanded the conspiracy to include all businesses that generated fluoride compounds as part of the manufacturing process, from glass- and brickmakers, to weapons manufacturers. As proof of these theories, antifluoridationists stressed the minor role the Mellon Institute, a business-financed research institute, played in early tests on fluoridation.
For others, the force behind the promotion of fluoridation was the sugar industry, which wanted to find an easy way to prevent tooth decay so that it could encourage consumption of sugar. Sometimes, the entire processed food industry was considered part of this conspiracy. Antifluoridationists argued that the safe and effective method of preventing tooth decay was the elimination of processed foods, especially refined sugar and flour, from the diet.
These industries, by backing the use of fluoridation, were seeking to prevent tooth decay through a dangerous and ineffective method that would allow Americans to continue to consume their products. These antifluoridationists rarely offered any proof to support their allegations, although they sometimes mentioned the Mellon Institute’s role in fluoridation research as evidence of these views.
The federal government was also considered involved in a plot to force fluoridation on the U.S. public. Within the federal government, the USPHS was the agency primarily responsible for promoting fluoridation; antifluoridationists claimed this agency was only backing fluoridation as a way to extend federal authority.
These antifluoridationists argued that once the federal government won public acceptance of treating tooth decay through chemicals in the water supply, the next step would be birth control or psychiatric medication administered to the entire population through the public drinking water, or forcing exercise and diet regimes on the entire population to control obesity.
Another explanation for the USPHS’s continued promotion of fluoridation was that the USPHS was involved in a cover-up; the USPHS promoted fluoridation because it could not admit that its scientists, when they determined that fluoridation was safe, had committed a mistake that may have endangered the health of millions of Americans.