As Linus Pauling’s career progressed, his prominence, both within and outside of the scientific community, greatly increased. Because of this newfound fame and respect, the value placed on Pauling’s opinion also skyrocketed, and he was often contacted for his outlook on significant matters not directly related to his programs of research. This is readily apparent in the number of requests that he received to voice his thoughts on the fluoridation of drinking water.
The addition of fluoride ion to drinking water to promote dental health became a very controversial topic in the second half of the twentieth century. Opponents of the process argued that fluorine, a powerful toxin in large enough quantities, can cause a number of health problems ranging from “mottled teeth” to drastic increases in cancer rates. Others called it a form of mass medication – a choice for the populace that the government should not have the ability to make.
On the other hand, there were also many supporters of fluoridation, and among them was Pauling. Although his role in the controversy was minor, he seemed to take a genuine interest in the topic. Within his papers held at the OSU Libraries Special Collections, two boxes are dedicated to fluoridation, and many of the documents they contain are covered with Pauling’s annotations. That said, Pauling was loathe to get too involved with the matter, noting in a 1964 letter to James Moynahan “that I am extremely busy, and I don’t like to waste time on the fluoridation matter.”
Despite his busy schedule, Pauling did provide comment on a number of the major arguments against fluoridation. For example, in a letter to Mr. Harold R. Dessau on December 4, 1963, he writes
Natural waters differ in their content on fluoride ion. The average natural drinking water contains approximately the amount of fluoride that seems to be the best conducive to health, especially to the development of good teeth, and this action of fluoride is understood. Some drinking waters contain more fluoride ion, such as to cause mottling of teeth but no recognized damage to health. Some waters are deficient in fluoride ion. The addition of fluoride ion improves the quality of the drinking water, bringing it into the natural range that is most beneficial to human beings. Although some people have surmised that this small amount of fluoride ion might have some deleterious action, in addition to its beneficial action on the teeth, there is no evidence to support the surmise.
Although Pauling was quick to state his support for the fluoridation of drinking water, he was also extremely careful to add the qualifier that he supported it “only in cases where the fluoride ion content is less than average for natural water.” He recognized the fact that, in larger quantities, fluorine is toxic, though he mentioned that the same is “true of many substances that we ingest in small amounts, including a number that are required for life.”
In November 1967, after numerous requests from various correspondents, Pauling finally published his official statement on the fluoridation of drinking water. In it he wrote:
Over a period of more than a decade I have studied the available information about the fluoridation of drinking water. I have reached the conclusion that the presence of fluoride ion in drinking water in concentrations about equal to the average for natural water is beneficial to the health, especially because of the protection it provides against dental caries, and that there is no evidence for the detrimental effects comparable in significance to the beneficial effects.
For Pauling’s entire statement, see the scanned document below.