By: Adrienne Murphy
For the first time, former Minister for Finance, Richie Ryan, has spoken about his role in the 1963 constitutional case, taken against the mandatory fluoridation of water in Ireland. Startling new evidence suggests that the judgement may have been unsound…
In a startling new development in our investigation into the policy of mandatory fluoridation of the drinking water in Ireland, Hot Press has spoken to Richie Ryan – the former Fine Gael TD, Minister for Finance and MEP.
We can now reveal for the first time that Richie Ryan was not only the chief instigator and driver of the legal attempt to prevent the introduction of mandatory water fluoridation by the Irish State back in the early ‘60s, but he also provided funding for the case, not only handling it on a pro bono basis but also covering from his own pocket many of the considerable expenses in what was a lengthy and dramatic constitutional action.
It is a revelation that the former Minister for Finance has never before made public. During the ‘60s when the fluoride controversy erupted, Richie Ryan was the Fine Gael spokesman on Health and Social Welfare. He retired from Irish politics in 1982, to concentrate on Europe. He was an MEP until 1986, when he was appointed to the European Court of Auditors.
Anti-fluoride campaigners are often depicted as conspiracy theorists and cranks. Richie Ryan is about as far from that caricature as it is possible to get and his re-emergence adds considerable further weight to the current campaign to end the policy of mandatory fluoridation in Ireland.
While the vast majority of people in Ireland are automatically force-fed fluoride on a daily basis in the water that comes from their taps, not many have any understanding of the background to this policy, or the controversy that surrounded it when the measure was first introduced in 1960. Indeed, until the publicity surrounding recent Hot Press articles, many young people were completely unaware of the existence of fluoride – and indeed of the concerns about it that have been gaining momentum outside Ireland.
The decision to fluoridate water in Ireland was originally made official in 1960, under the Health (Fluoridation of Water Supplies) Act. Shortly afterwards, a Dublin woman Gladys Ryan (no relation to Richie Ryan) took a constitutional case, opposing fluoridation. Her recent death, aged 91, alongside this year’s looming court action against the State by ‘The Girl Against Fluoride’, Aisling Fitzgibbon, have thrown a fresh focus on the extraordinary 1963 Ryan Vs. the Attorney General case.
As we reveal here, there is mounting evidence that the judgement in the action may have been unsound.
At the time there was widespread concern in Ireland about fluoridation. Sodium Fluoride, once commonly used as rat poison, was considered by many to be dangerous, and there was a groundswell of opposition to the decision to put it into the national water supply.
Hot Press can reveal now that Gladys Ryan’s case became the legal battleground between aggressive United States-sponsored promotion of water fluoridation and a high level of resistance by Irish citizens who believed that the policy could have damaging long-term effects.
The Fluoridation of Public Water Supplies Act was introduced by the Fianna Fáil Minister For Health, Sean MacEntee. The Irish health authorities had heard about water fluoridation from the US scientist Trendley H. Dean, the US-government sponsored so-called ‘father of fluoridation’, who originally visited Ireland in 1952 to give a lecture promoting water fluoridation in the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin.
Interestingly, a decade earlier, Dean had been very vocal in his opposition to the artificial fluoridation of public drinking water, on the grounds that it was potentially dangerous to human health. His u-turn on the issue saw him achieving a senior position with the American Dental Association by 1953. It has been speculated by anti-fluoride campaigners that there was a direct trade-off involved.
In Ireland, the Fluorine Consultative Council was originally appointed in 1956, by the then Minister for Health T.F.O’Higgins of Fine Gael. The Council’s Chairperson was Thomas A. Murphy (Professor of Social and Preventative Medicine and Registrar, University College, Dublin). The aim of the Council was to advise “whether, with a view to reducing the incidence of dental caries it is desirable to provide for an increased intake of fluorine (sic), and, if the Council considers it so desirable, to advise as to the best method of securing such an increased intake and as to any safegaurds and precautions necessary.”
A change of Government in 1957 saw Sean MacEntee inherit the Health portfolio. Murphy meanwhile had gone on a fluoridation ‘fact-finding’ mission to the US. Here scientists sponsored by the US Public Health Service – which was now aggressively pushing water fluoridation across the States, against huge public opposition – gave Murphy an overwhelmingly positive report on the safety and dental benefits of water fluoridation.
Murphy returned to Ireland and his report landed on MacEntee’s desk. Soon afterwards, MacEntee introduced the Water Fluoridation bill in the Dáil.
Recently I had the honour of being the first journalist in decades to discuss the dramatic events of the time with Richie Ryan. He recalls an extraordinary level of bias in the State’s attitude to the issue from the very start.
“Throughout the debate about fluoridation in the Dáil and during the legal proceedings,” he recalls, “both in the High Court and in the Supreme Court, whenever there was a little bit of tittle-tattle from any part of the world pro-fluoridation, the Dept issued a press statement. But never, ever of course did they reveal that certain nations had voted down fluoridation, or rescinded a previous decision to have it. In other words, they carried out a propaganda campaign, showing their complete bias.”
The case which Gladys Ryan took lasted 65 days, at that time the longest civil case in Irish legal history. The case argued on Gladys Ryan’s behalf was that the concerned mother of five’s constitutional right to bodily integrity, and her constitutional right as a parent to manage the health of her children, were infringed on by the Fluoridation of Public Water Supplies Act.
For anti-fluoride campaigners, Gladys Ryan is a heroic figure, who took personal risks in trying to protect the Irish population from being systematically exposed to a harmful chemical. Indeed, given that her action delayed the implementation of fluoridation by four years, she arguably did indeed mitigate potential bodily damage caused by systemic ingestion of fluoride.
In the press at the time, however, Sean MacEntee caricatured Mrs Ryan as the proponent of a ‘flat earth society’. His account in an article published by the Journal of the Irish Dental Association is equally insulting. “A lady, whose means to sustain a High Court action were not commensurate with her disposition to litigate, initiated proceedings to have it declared invalid,” he wrote. …”These vexatious legal proceedings cost the tax payers £31, 500, not one penny of which was recovered from the lady who instituted them.”
“Of course, having started on the path,” Richie Ryan recalls now, “MacEntee wouldn’t divert from it. Just like those in the Department of Health who are never going to admit that they made a mistake in relation to this.”
The truth is that it was Richie Ryan – then a member of Dublin Corporation, a Fine Gael TD and a solicitor – who was the real driving force behind the intense legal battle. He came to realise, once the court case had begun that, in sponsoring that legal challenge, he was in effect taking on the might of the United States government, who were the first promoters of water fluoridation in the world.
“It was a huge cost, because it went on for so long,” Richie Ryan, now 84 years old, remembers. “I didn’t price it at the time, so I couldn’t even guess how much it would be in today’s terms. But it was a lot. It included covering the expenses of the expert witnesses, who came from the ends of the earth.
“We had some months of work to do before the case began,” he recalls, “and when it was running for so long, it was really a question of 20 hours work a day. You had to be in court – the easy part! – and then you had consultations afterwards, and after that there’d be more work and documentation required for the following day. It absorbed six to eight months entirely.”
Ryan had personally, and in his new role as Fine Gael spokesman on Health, oppossed water fluoridation vociferously since the bill was introduced in the Dáil in 1959. For the 1963 case, he put together a high-powered legal team – including, as Senior Counsel, Maud Gonne McBride’s son Sean McBride, then a former Minister for Foreign Affairs and later a Nobel Peace Prize winner.
The anti-fluoridation case they mounted has gone down in history as one of the most extensive ever legal efforts to halt fluoridation. Looking at it with the benefit of hindsight 50 years on, it is remarkable that Ryan’s team and the expert witnesses they called advanced very similar scientific, health and precautionary arguments to those that scientists opposing fluoridation are making even more strongly today – because there is further evidence available now. But the authorities clearly knew 50 years ago what the problems were and chose to ignore them.
“And the Department of Health today is even more determined not to be found in the wrong,” Richie Ryan quips, in his South Dublin home. After all these years, he is still razor sharp – and as convinced as ever that fluoridation is a misbegotten policy. “That’s why they have never revealed the long-term health effects of fluoride. I think they have a closed mind. Their attitude is to defend themselves at all costs, because they would not want to have a situation in which they can be proved wrong.”
According to Richie Ryan, the State defendants were taken by surprise in 1963 by the sheer strength of the case his team put forward.
“They didn’t expect that we would amass such an army of experts,” he remembers. “They thought it would simply be a question of legal argument. They have admitted to me personally that they were stunned at the extent and the ability of our team. Then, they obviously got onto the wires to America, and the Americans said they’d make their top witnesses available for them, which they did.”
So why were the US government of the time willing to give of their resources to push through the bill which would introduce fluoridation in Ireland?
George L. Waldbott, a leading US medical expert on fluoride and one of the world’s most famous opponents of water fluoridation, was one of the witnesses invited to give evidence by Richie Ryan. In his 1965 book, A Struggle With Titans: Forces Behind Fluoridation, Waldbott describes his experience of the 1963 case in Dublin, and shines a fascinating light on why the US government spared no expense in its attempt to influence the judge’s decision.
“Any lawsuit on fluoridation,” he wrote, “whether in the US or elsewhere in the world, is directed against the US Public Health Service, which sponsored fluoridation prematurely before research had been carried out to prove its safety.”
Indeed, it was seen as crucial for the vested interests in the US that the constitutional objection in Ireland should be defeated. For if Gladys Ryan had prevailed, then the ripple effect back in the US would potentially have caused huge credibility problems for the Health Authorities and the military there.
I ask Richie Ryan, was it really US policy that was on trial?
“Yes, it was,” he concurs. “They saw that if this European case went against fluoridation, it was going to strengthen the arm of the anti-flouridationists in the United States. So the Americans were quickly on the scene.”
Waldbott writes that he warned Richie Ryan’s team that the preponderance of fluoride research had been carried out by Public Health Service sponsored scientists, and that many scientists who’d done their own research into fluoride’s health effects feared reprisal if they went public with the results.
Waldbott goes on to describe how US pro-fluoridation scientists sat immediately behind the Irish state’s legal team throughout the case, “advising them constantly, handing them written suggestions on slips of paper regarding examination of the plaintiff’s witnesses.
“This, I feared, was an ominous sign,” he added. “No matter how thoroughly informed the plaintiff’s attorneys were on the subject, they could not acquire enough knowledge to match the constant onslaught of statements, most of which originated with the Public Health Service in Washington, DC, and the American Dental Association in Chicago.”
In the end, the case was lost, with Mr. Justice John Kenny deciding in favour of the State. While there is a tendency to see this as a clear confirmation of the validity of fluoridation, information which Hot Press has uncovered now suggests that nothing could be further from the truth.
For one, George Waldbott was very clear that the decision was flawed.
“This important decision concerning the constitutional rights of the Irish citizen in the matter of his children’s health depended entirely upon the expert evidence, and upon the ruling of one man, learned in the law but not in science,” he reflected. “Yet, the decision hinged upon scientific, not legal, evidence. The judge decided that one set of experts was totally right, even to the point of proving a negative, ie. that fluoridation carries no possibility of harm to any member of a large population and that the other set of experts, equally eminent and well-qualified, was totally mistaken and incorrect to the point of failing to establish even a possibility of harm. He failed to take into account that medicine is not an absolute science like mathematics or physics.”
In his judgement, Justice Kenny stressed that he considered the pro-fluoridationist evidence given by US scientists to be stronger than that provided by Ryan’s team. In particular, the judge commended Dr. Harold Hodge, the top US government-sponsored fluoride researcher and advocate of water fluoridation at the time, who spent six days in court in Dublin, making the case for the safety and dental effectiveness of fluoride.
And thereby hangs a tale…
Harold Hodge was the chief source of safety information on fluoride in the US and the world for decades. This man and the research he promoted created the foundation for the dental lobby’s belief in the dental benefits of water fluoridation. As George Walbott observed, in essence the judgement hinges on the fact that Justice Kenny was impressed – and ultimately convinced – by Hodge. He came, after all, with the imprimatur of the US Government.
“A special word of thanks is due to Professor Hodge,” Justice Kenny said in his judgement, “who was in the witness box for six days and who gave his evidence with unfailing courtesy and in non-technical language.”
The deferential tone is unmistakable. It is the quicksand on which the decision is based.
“I come now to deal with the evidence in this case. I accept the whole of the evidence given by Professors Hodge and Ericsson and by Dr. Galagan… If… evidence in any way contradicts that of Professors Hodge and Ericsson and that of Dr. Galagan, I prefer the evidence of Professors Hodge and Ericsson and Dr. Galagan.”
What Justice Kenny didn’t know was that Hodge and his working methods would later be widely discredited – placing a previously hidden question mark over the Kenny judgement to the extent that it should now arguably be seen as unsound.
These are murky waters, in which those opposing fluoridation are routinely depicted as loonies and conspiracy theorists. However, since the declassification of previously classified US information in the mid ‘90s, clear evidence has emerged that fluoridationists – including Harold Hodge – and many of their studies, were at best questionable, and at worst knowingly fraudulent.
We can only speculate now how Justice Kenny would have felt had he read Christopher Bryson’s The Fluoride Deception (2004, Seven Stories), which paints a thoroughly documented, sinister picture of Harold Hodge as arch-promoter of fluoridation.
The Fluoride Deception reveals that Hodge was Chief Toxicologist of the Manhattan Project – which produced the first atomic bomb, during the World War II, that was ultimately used in Hiroshima. It also contains solid evidence that fluoridation policy was promoted as a counter against the threat of damages claims arising from these highly classified military activities.
Indeed, it is absolutely clear that Hodge did not present ‘all of the evidence’ to which he was privy at the time of the court hearing and that under the pretext of the US national security interest he could omit crucial evidence he had been fully aware of as early as 1946 – 17 years before the Irish court case.
In that year, there had been an accidental leak of gaseous hydrofluoric acid – devastating crops, harming livestock and people, near Gloucester and Salem in the USA. The leaks were emitted from a DuPont plant that was manufacturing ‘hex’, a fluoride compound that enriches uranium isotopes for the purposes of nuclear weaponry. The possibility of litigation caused panic within certain lobby groups benefiting from the exploitation of industrial fluorides.
As part of a strategy to fend off liability for the damages caused by airborne fluoride, in a secret and recently declassified memo to his superior, Hodge had written:
“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 toxicology and perhaps the usefulness of F in tooth health?” (‘F’ was code for Fluoride)
More tellingly, in terms of what Hodge knew, Bryson’s research also provides an account from fluoride whistleblower and one-time colleague of Hodge, Phyllis Mullenix.
Mullenix began her research career in neurotoxicology for the Forsyth Institute when she developed a new, more accurate system of analysing the effects of chemicals on the brain and central nervous system, using computer technology. However, Mullenix was subsequently fired for attempting to publish the stunning findings of her research, documenting damage caused by low concentrations of fluoride on the brains of rats.
In 1996, Mullenix confirmed that she had also discovered declassified documents pertaining to research by Hodge for the Manhattan Project, showing that as early as 1946 Hodge fully knew that fluoride would cause neurological damage even at low concentrations – that is, at concentrations of approximately 1ppm.
Despite this prior knowledge, Hodge declared to the world, and to Justice Kenny, that at concentrations of 1ppm fluoride in water was a safe prophylaxis against dental caries.
Additionally, Justice Kenny was ignorant of the fact that Hodge was one of a group of scientists involved in carrying out experiments on unsuspecting patients at Rochester’s Strong Memorial Hospital – experiments during which subjects were injected with fatal doses of plutonium.
It seems bizarre now that this extraordinarily controversial figure was a key engineer in shaping the public’s acceptance of the idea that fluoride is safe at low concentrations, both in the US and in Ireland.
That, however, is not the only basis for arguing that the judgement may have been unsound. In part, Justice Kenny’s decision against Gladys Ryan was based on a technicality. In its case, the State argued that because Ireland is an island with a big rural community with many people living on the fringes, it is impossible to provide piped water to everyone because of the high cost. It was argued, therefore, that citizens do not actually have a right to piped water, even if they live in a piped water area.
Therefore, the legal reasoning continued, if you don’t want to drink the fluoridated piped water, you can find some other water to drink. In a twist that with the benefit of hindsight seems almost medieval, Gladys Ryan was actually advised in court of the location of several old water pumps around Dublin, where she could go to collect non-fluoridated water for her family to drink.
The judgement also clearly ignored the fact that in fluoridated areas, every cup of tea made in a café, restaurant, hospital or school would have fluoride in it, meaning that the entitlement of a citizen to travel to get non-fluoridated water, on which this aspect of the judgement hinged, was a nonsense.
50 years on, Richie Ryan still expresses his frustration that the quality of scientific testimony his team amassed arguing against any conclusive belief in the safety of fluoridation was so simply dismissed by Justice Kenny.
“The evidence in the case,” he says now, “was of such serious concern to competent medical people that it’s strange that it was dismissed – and that it was suggested that people who didn’t want to take fluoridated tap water could go up the mountains and drink water from a stream.” He laughs now and offers a common sense reaction to Justice Kenny’s near-theological reasoning: “It’s ridiculous.”
But there is another aspect of the case that is also troubling. Justice Kenny had been a civil servant before he became a legal eagle. And among the positions he held was one as Private Secretary to Sean MacEntee in one of his prior ministerial positions. It seems extraordinary that he was appointed to hear a case being taken against a measure, which had been introduced by a Minister with whom he had enjoyed a very close working relationship – offering a further basis for questioning the original judgement.
Ryan, generally forthright in his response to questions, is guarded when I ask him about the judge who heard the fluoridation case. Did he know at the time that Kenny had previously worked as Private Secretary to MacEntee?
“I did,” he replies. Was it open for you to challenge his hearing the case? I ask.
“It would have been for Senior Counsel to do it – Sean McBride, Paddy McGilligan, who was Professor of Constitutional and International Law in UCD, and Tommy Connolly SC – and they decided not to. But they were aware of it all right. It was common knowledge.”
Were they worried about it?
“Well, one has to hope for the best,” Ryan says.
Which leaves the question: did Justice Kenny make Gladys Ryan’s team aware of the connection, as would now be expected, or did he offer to resile from the case?
As a solicitor, Richie Ryan agrees that evidence pointing to the deliberate withholding of vital information by the State’s key witness, Harold Hodge, back in 1963 calls the judgement into question. It is the kind of information that might yet prove hugely helpful in the renewed court attempt to defeat mandatory fluoridation in Ireland, which is being undertaken by Aisling Fitzgibbon, aka The Girl Against Fluoride. In the meantime, it might also give pause for thought to the Junior Minister in charge of fluoridation policy, Alex White, who has yet to answer the 27 questions recently posed, in an Open Letter to him, by Hot Press.
We await developments with keen interest