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How a toxin used in developing the atomic bomb was added to our drinking water.
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The Fluoride Deception
By Christopher Bryson
Seven Stories PressCopyright © 2004 Christopher Bryson
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThrough the Looking Glass
At the children's entrance to the prestigious Forsyth Dental Center in Boston, there is a bronze mural from a scene in Alice in Wonderland. The mural makes scientist Phyllis Mullenix laugh. One spring morning, when she was the head of the toxicology department at Forsyth, she walked into the ornate and marbled building and, like Alice, stepped through the looking glass. That same day in her Forsyth laboratory she made a startling discovery and tumbled into a bizarre wonderland where almost no one was who they had once appeared to be and nothing in the scientist's life would ever be the same again.
As she drove alongside the Charles River in the bright August sunshine of 1982 for her first day of work at the Forsyth Dental Center in Boston, toxicologist Phyllis Mullenix was smiling. She and her husband Rick had recently had their second daughter. Her new job promised career stability and with it, the realization of a professional dream.
Since her days as a graduate student Mullenix had been exploring new methods for studying the possible harmful effects of small doses of chemicals. By 1982 Dr. Mullenix was a national leader in the young science of neurotoxicology, measuring how such chemicals affected the brain and central nervous system. She and a team of researchers were developing a bold new technology to perform those difficult measurements more accurately and more quickly than ever before.
The system was called the Computer Pattern Recognition -System. It used cameras to record changes in the "pattern" of behavior of laboratory animals that had been given tiny amounts of toxic chemicals. Computers then rapidly analyzed the data. By detecting how the animals' behavior differed from that of similar "control" -animals-that were not given the toxic agent-scientists were able to measure or "quantify" the extent to which a chemical affected the animals' central nervous system.
Previous such efforts had relied on subjective guesswork as to the severity of the chemical's toxic effect or on laborious and time-consuming efforts to quantify the changes the chemical made in behavior. The speed of the computers and the accuracy of the camera measurements in the Mullenix system, however, could potentially revolutionize the study of toxic chemicals.
As her car flew along the Charles River that summer morning in 1982, Mullenix knew that her new job and the support of the prestigious Forsyth Dental Center would finally allow her to complete the work on her new system.
Mullenix had caught the eye of Forsyth's director, John "Jack" Hein, some years earlier. He had attended one of her seminars at the Harvard Medical School, where she was a faculty member in the Department of Psychiatry. He had sat in the audience, dazzled, his mind racing. Hein remembers a "very bright" woman describing a revolutionary new technology, which he believed had the potential for transforming the science of neurotoxicology. "She had the world by the tail," said Hein. "There is nothing more exciting than a new methodology."
Jack Hein wanted Mullenix to bring her new technology to Forsyth and to set up a modern toxicology laboratory. It would be the first such dental toxicology center in the country. Many powerful chemicals are routinely employed in a dentist's office, such as mercury, high-tensile plastics, anesthetics, and filling amalgams. Hein knew that an investigation of the toxicity of some of these materials was overdue.
The Forsyth director's boyish enthusiasm helped to sell Mullenix on the move. "I was very impressed with Dr. Hein," she said. "He was like a kid in a candy store. He couldn't wait for us to use the new methodology and apply it to some of the materials dentists work with."
Phyllis Mullenix's transfer to Forsyth was a move to one of Boston's most prestigious medical centers. The Forsyth Dental Infirmary for Children was established in 1910 to provide free dental care to Boston's poor children. By 1982, when Dr. Mullenix accepted Jack Hein's invitation, the renamed Forsyth Dental Center was affiliated with Harvard Medical School and had become one of the best-known centers for dental research in the world.
At the helm was Forsyth's director, Jack Hein, a well-known figure in American dental research. Hein had attended the University of Rochester in the 1950s, and there he had helped to develop the fluoride compound sodium monofluorophosphate (MFP). Colgate soon added MFP to its toothpaste, and Jack Hein became the company's dental director in 1955. When he came to Forsyth in 1962, Hein was part of the new order in reshaping American dentistry-a changing of the guard then taking place in many dental schools and research centers. Like Jack Hein, the new generation of leaders was uniform in its support of fluoride's use in dentistry.
Forsyth had read the tea leaves well. While a previous Forsyth director, Veikko O. Hurme, had been an outspoken opponent of adding fluoride to public water supplies, Jack Hein's support came at the same time that Colgate poured cash into new facilities and fluoride research at Forsyth. Additional funds came from research grants from other private corporations and from the federal National Institutes of Health (NIH). A sparkling new research annex, built in 1970, doubled the size of the Forsyth Center, with funds from the NIH and "major donors," such as Warner Lambert, Colgate Palmolive, and Lever Brothers.
Jack Hein's track record as a fund-raiser for the Forsyth Center and his support for fluoride's use in dentistry owed much to his membership in an informal old boy's club of scientists who had also once done research at the University of Rochester. The University had been a leading center for fluoride research in the 1950s and 1960s, with many of its graduate students taking leading roles in dental schools and research centers around the United States.
In 1983, a year after Phyllis Mullenix arrived at Forsyth, director Hein introduced her to an elderly gentleman who had been Hein's professor and scientist mentor some thirty years earlier at the University of Rochester. The old man was a researcher with a distinguished national reputation-the first president of the Society of Toxicology, Mullenix learned, and the author of scores of academic papers and books. His name was Harold Carpenter Hodge, and his impeccable manners and formal dress left an indelible impression on Mullenix.
"I was impressed with Harold," she said. "He was very gentlemanly. He would never say an inappropriate word, and he always wore a white lab coat."
Hodge had recently retired from the University of San Francisco. Jack Hein had brought him to Forsyth for the prestige he would bring to Mullenix's new toxicology department, he said, and out of admiration for his former professor, who was then in his mid-seventies. "I thought it would be fun," Hein added.
Mullenix grew fond of Hodge. He seemed almost grandfatherly, ambling into her laboratory, chatting as her young children frolicked alongside. Hodge was especially fascinated by the new computer system for testing chemical toxicity. He would fire endless questions at Mullenix and her colleague, Bill Kernan from Iowa State University, Mullenix remembered. "He would quietly come up to my lab. And Harold would ask 'Why are you doing this?' and 'What are you doing?' and Bill [Kernan] would take great pains to explain every little scientific detail, showing him the rat pictures."
By the early 1980s Jack Hein's vision for the Forsyth Center included more than just dentistry. The canny fund-raiser believed that the new Mullenix technology could become another big money spinner for Forsyth-a winning weapon in the high-stakes field of toxic tort litigation, in which workers and communities allege they have been poisoned by chemicals. "It was an exciting new way of studying neurotoxicity," said Jack Hein, who would eventually assign Mullenix to spacious new offices and laboratories on the fourth floor of the Forsyth research annex.
Neurotoxicology was still a young science. If someone claimed to have been hurt by a chemical in the workplace or had been exposed in a pollution incident, finding the scientific truth was extraordinarily difficult. Big courtroom awards against industry often hinged on the subjective opinion of a paid expert witness and the unpredictable emotions of a jury, said Mullenix. "Industries did not like that. They felt that the answers were biased, and so the thought of taking investigator bias out of the system was very exciting to them. They thought this would help [industry] in court," she added.
The Computer Pattern Recognition System quickly attracted attention from other scientists, industry, and the media. The Wall Street Journal called the Mullenix technology "precise" and "objective." Some of America's biggest corporations opened their wallets. The medical director of the American Petroleum Institute personally gave $70,000 to Mullenix. Monsanto gave $25,000. Amoco and Mobil chipped in thousands more, while Digital Equipment Corporation donated most of the powerful computer equipment.
"Several oil and chemical companies such as Monsanto Co. are supporting research on the system," the Wall Street Journal reported. "Questions are being raised more frequently about whether there are behavioral effects attributable to chemicals," a Monsanto toxicologist, George Levinskas, told the newspaper. The Forsyth system "has potential to give a better idea of the effects our chemicals might have," he added.
In a letter of recommendation, Myron A. Mehlman, the former head of toxicology for the Mobil Oil Corporation, who was then working for the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), called the Mullenix technology "a milestone for testing low levels of exposure of chemicals for neurotoxicity for the 21st Century.... The benefits of Professor Mullenix' discovery to Forsyth are enormous and immeasurable."
Industry trusted Phyllis Mullenix. Since the 1970s the toxicologist had earned large fees consulting on pollution issues and the legal requirements of the Clean Air Act. Hired by the American Petroleum Institute, for example, she'd acted as scientific coordinator for that lobby group, advising it on proposed and restrictive new EPA standards for ozone. "Whenever it got technical they would dance me out," she said. "Every time EPA came out with another criteria document I would look for the errors."
Mullenix is not apologetic for waltzing with industry. Anybody could take her to the ball, she said, explaining, "I did not look at myself as a public health individual. I was amazed that the EPA did such shoddy work writing a criteria document. I thought that at the very least those documents should be factual."
At Harvard, Mullenix had been criticized by some academics for her industry connections, a charge she calls "ridiculous." Said Mullenix, "No one group, be it government, academia or industry, can be right one hundred percent of the time. I don't see science as aligning yourself with one group. Industry can be right in one respect and they can be very wrong in another."
And Mullenix had other consulting work-for companies such as Exxon, Mobil, 3M, and Boise Cascade. Companies including DuPont, Procter and Gamble, NutraSweet, Chevron, Colgate-Palmolive, and Eastman Kodak all wrote checks supporting a 1987 conference she held titled "Screening Programs for Behavioral Toxicity."
Like many revolutionary ideas, the concept behind the Mullenix technology for studying central-nervous-system problems was simple. The spark of inspiration had come from Dr. Mullenix's graduate advisor at the University of Kansas Medical Center, Dr. Stata Norton. A slender and soft-spoken woman, Dr. Norton was one of the first prominent female toxicologists in the United States. She had won national recognition by demonstrating that there were "threshold" levels for the toxic effects of alcohol and low-level radiation on the fetus. Now retired to her summer cottage, surrounded by lush Kansas farmland, Dr. Norton's face opened in a smile as she remembered her former student. Normally, she said, graduate students rotated through the various laboratories at the Medical Center. But there was something different about Phyllis Mullenix.
"Phyllis came into my lab to do a short study-and she never left," Norton recalled, laughing.
Mullenix had a special willingness to grapple with complex new information, Norton said. When Norton was studying the effects of radiation on rats, Mullenix wanted to learn how the radiation had physically altered the rats' brains. She had never done that work before, Norton recalled, but her student stayed late at the lab, poring over medical journals, dissecting the rat's brains, and looking for tiny changes caused by the radiation. "I don't think she thought it was difficult," said Norton. "She was happy to jump on the project and get with it."
There was something else. Norton noticed her student had a fearless quality and a willingness to challenge conventional wisdom. The professor found it refreshing. "It takes a certain personality to stand up and do something different. Science is full of that, all the way from Galileo," Norton said. "That doesn't mean you are right or you are wrong, but I can appreciate that in Phyllis because I am like that."
In the mid-1970s Stata Norton was a pioneer in the new field of behavioral toxicology, inventing new ways for measuring the ways chemicals affected behavior. At first Norton studied mice that had been trained or "conditioned" to behave in certain ways by receiving food rewards. Some scientists believed that by studying disruptions in this "conditioned" behavior, they could most accurately measure the toxic effects of different chemicals.
Norton was not so sure. One day, working with mice that had been trained to press a lever for food at precisely timed intervals, she suddenly wondered how the animals knew when to press the lever. "I looked in the box," she said. Inside she saw that each mouse seemed to measure the time between feeding by employing a "sequence" or pattern of simple activities such as sitting, scratching, or sniffing. "There was a rhythm," she explained. "They timed it by doing things."
Norton began her own experiments. She wondered if, by studying changes in this rhythm of "patterned" behavior during the time between feeding-as opposed to studying disruptions in the conditioned behavior exhibited for food rewards-she could get a more sensitive measurement of the toxicity of chemicals. Norton and Mullenix took thousands of photographs of rats that had been given a chemical poison and compared them with similar photographs of healthy "control" rats. They were able to detect changes in the sequences of the rats' behavior, even at very low levels of chemical poisoning. "We were all very excited," said Norton.
Excerpted from The Fluoride Deception by Christopher Bryson Copyright © 2004 by Christopher Bryson. Excerpted by permission.
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