A blog about science, medicine, media and the ramblings of Irish hack....

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Holy fluoride, Batman! An open letter to Dublin City Council

 A short open letter to Dublin city council members, ahead of their vote on water fluoridation on September 1st, 2014

Dear Dublin City Councillors,

    I write to you as a scientist and journalist to respectfully request that you allow best evidence to guide your decision on water fluoridation this week - I know you're busy people, and so am I (well technically I'm only a person, singular , but I digress) and it's unlikely you have time to trawl through Pubmed to read study after study on the safety and efficacy of fluoride and that's fair enough. The "too long, didn't read" version of the medical findings on fluoride are pretty clear: it has been hugely beneficial for our collective dental health and one of the few health measures which actually saves much more in dental / medical costs than the relatively puny amount we pay for it, and there's damn few health measures that can be said about. From a social perspective, it provides some modicum of base dental care to every tier in our unequal society.

But what about the terrible things you've heard from campaigners on the issue, insisting it causes everything from depression to cancer to bad haircuts and traffic jams? As politicians you probably try to respect the concerns of your constituents or perhaps more cynically hope they'll reward you with votes in exchange for a quick populist move in their favour.  But the truth is you're giving certain elements way too much credit - the case against fluoride is nothing more than vapid scaremongering, based on a flammable mixture of dubious assertion, spurious correlation, poor reasoning and often a smattering of jaw-dropping dishonesty.

You'll excuse me, I hope, that I'm penning this with a palpable sense of weariness; as a science writer I've covered this topic before and am heartily sick of it - I wrote about it for the Irish Times last September and more recently, the Guardian in April. The title of that piece, "Politicians should stop pandering to anti-fluoridation campaigners" should make my frustration (and indeed, the weariness of many of us in the scientific and health community) clear; In it, I outline the facts and dismiss some of the fictions; as with all Guardian Science pieces it's fully referenced and filled with hyperlinks to medical sources and supporting evidence should you wish to explore further. Similarly, Science journalist Gerry Byrne makes an eloquent case debunking many of these myths you can read here.

The fluoride issue is driven by a vocal minority with an almost religious fervour - many of you have expressed on social media that you've been inundated with emails from anti-fluoride campaigners both in Ireland and abroad and I have sympathy for that - they can be a damn intimidating bunch; I've been verbally abused, threatened and insulted for having the audacity to point out their assertions are simply untrue. I've had a prominent anti-fluoride campaigner and his followers write to my employer and make a series of accusations about me - I've been accused of being in the pocket of big pharma, the Rockefeller foundation and even accused of being a member of the Illuminati (I'm afraid not - a shame, as I hear they have lovely business cards and great child-care facilities) and I agree 100% it's damn unpleasant - I've written about it here if you'd like to see the kind of tactics anti-fluoride fanatics in Ireland use. In fact, I'd urge you to read it, because it gives some background to the facts and fictions you might find useful. It also may give you some insight into the kind of people who've been lobbying you on this topic.

Fluoride conspiracy theories are nothing new - they've been around in their same ludicrous form for decades and even Dr. Strangelove ripped the royal piss out of them back in 1963*. After decades of investigation, their claims are simply without merit. I know they can be an intimidating and loud but it is nothing but sound and fury, and to entertain it would be to allow pure pathetic populism trump good health policy. The anti-fluoride crowd are loud, but it's a safe bet that the vast majority of the county would prefer a health policy based on best evidence rather than ideological scaremongering.. Remember also,  we've been on the anti-fluoride merry-go-round in the past - and in a gesture of appeasement we set up an independent expert body to examine the safety of fluoride; they've continued to find it beneficial for our dental health and have slammed the misinformation from the anti lobby. Similarly, Irish dentists support water fluoridation, and the WHO recommend a level of 1 mg/ L for optimum dental health.

It is scientific bodies like these, and the decades of peer-reviewed science upon which their conclusions are based, that should be underpinning your decision on Monday. Otherwise you're giving a public statement that you're willing to let angel-healing anti-vaccine activists dictate health policy and that cynical populism trumps the health of your electorate. I am personally sick of this topic, and if I'm honest it's not something I feel any great passion about - I almost resent having spent a chunk of my day off having to write about this nonsense again, but there is a principle that matter - if we allow dishonest or misinformed lobbying to displace one of the few positive preventative health measures we have, that is detrimental to everyone and sets a worrying precedent that evidence is simply unimportant in public discussion and policy.

I hope you've found this quick note useful, and  I truly hope tomorrow you'll make the decision to be guided by evidence and not scaremongering.

Best Wishes,

   David Robert Grimes

PS: I will be very interested in your replies, and may publish them here - I think it's important that politics is transparent and I'm sure you agree, though I will be happy to check with you first as a courtesy. 

..pretty much how I feel every time this comes up. Like Batman.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Turning a blind eye...

I don’t make a habit of writing here about personal or non-scientific things, but on my last trip back home to Dublin something happened that I feel might strike a chord with some; it certainly did with me – There will soon be LOTS of pieces about Science and media coming up (Seriously, I’m half way through a series of monster posts so this is somewhat of an aside! ) so if you’d prefer to wait for them do check back soon! This piece is a little about intervention and turning a blind eye, and how this is something we should perhaps strive to avoid.

I’m just back from an excellent and sorely needed holiday in Dublin, and write this just over 24 hours after it happened before I start to forget things – I had a meeting in Town yesterday and grabbed a train from Skerries to Dublin Connolly. I had about 25 minutes to acquire something resembling food and wolf it down before crossing the Liffey. I was longing for a Chicken Salsa wrap, a bizarre craving exacerbated by a barely suppressed hangover from the Dionysian eve before. McDonalds may not be classy, but it ticked both boxes so I popped into the establishment beside the spire. In the queue directly in front of me to my left were two Russian students – baby faced and clearly in their teens. They ordered their food politely in clear but halting English. Immediately in front of me to my right was a woman with a thick inner-city Dublin accent and another younger lady in a Polka-dot belly top whom I presumed to be her daughter. The two dubs glanced over to the Russians and the older one poked the daughter and hissed “watch this now”. 

A typical Russian according to Hollywood - the gentlemen in question were not quite like this

 She proceeded to bump into the Russian beside her – out of basic politeness, he immediately apologised despite not having done anything. The older Dub kicked up a loud stink “Ah me bleeding back! Ah Jesus, would you watch it!”. The Russian teen apologies profusely, as the mother shoots a sideways snigger at the daughter. “Me back is fucked now, I’ll be getting me fookin’ solicitor after ya!” – The Russian teens look at each other, a little confused. “Da Lawyer” the daughter interjects. They guys know this word, and look quite panicked, apologising again. She's now milking it like a rotten ham; “Sorry isn’t good enough – yiss should be giving me money for that. I need a doctor”. This exchange is happening right in front of me, and I’m just waiting for the older woman to burst out laughing and exclaim she’s only winding them up. Only that doesn’t happen – in full view of everyone there, and within earshot of everyone in a 100 metre radius (at a charitable estimate) she proceeds to demand money. Within a moment she’s snatched a tenner from evidently distressed Russian student, bemoaning it’s not more. Lots of us are watching and I keep waiting for the moment she hands it back to him, laughing that she wound him up so much. But that doesn’t happen - her and the daughter snatch their food off the server and steam off giggling.   

The two Russian guys look genuinely shaken and distraught. “Excuse me guys – do you know that lady?” I ask. No. They don’t. And yes, she took their money. They’re just teens, language students over for a course. I was mortified that anyone in my country, especially a guest, would be treated that way so publicly and feel compelled to apologise profusely. They shrug, unhappy but thank me for my kind words. The others who’d watched the whole scene dissipate and say nothing. 

I stood there for a moment and tried to concentrate on navigating my chicken wrap, but my anger at what had transpired gnawed at me. I glanced over to the Russians who were sheepishly eating their meals, visibly uneasy. What kind of introduction to Ireland is that? What must they have thought of Irish people? I decided in that moment that my mere commiseration wasn't enough - I ambled over and asked them to wait for a second - now the McDonald's near the spire is a monstrosity of a building that sprawls over 3 stories, but I eventually found the odious pair on the very top level. While I damn well knew they were fully aware of that they were doing, I figured it might be possible to disarm them by playing dumb - channelling my best bumbling Hugh Grant-esque shtick, I approached the Gorgon nest gingerly.  

"Excuse me ladies - awfully sorry to bother you during lunch, but I'm afraid the little joke with the Russian students might have gone a little far - perhaps you could return their money and clear up the misunderstanding?"

I'm not sure what I was expecting, but the response was probably inevitable - the senior Medusa reared her shrivelled head and roared "Who the fook are you, you nosy little prick?" as the daughter shot me daggers - all the others diners spun around facing the source of the commotion like Antelope startled by a lion attack. My strategy of disarming discretion was now firmly out the window - she continued with a stream of interesting yet repetitive expletives directed at me.  I locked her gaze and outlined the problem to clarify the scene for the now captive audience in the hope public exposure might have some effect on her - "You threatened a young man, a visitor to this country, and intimidated him out of his limited money. You should be ashamed of yourself." Others around nodded in subtle agreement. "Fook off ya nosy fookin' bollox - he almost fooking killed me, me fookin back is in bits - that's my money now, should have taken a fooking hundred for the fookin' pain I'm in .I haven't done anything wrong so fook off ya ****".

Good cop, bad cop, Hugh Grant - a poor strategy for negotiation...

Despite my annoyance, I did my best to keep my tone calm and even and mainly succeeded -  "Listen, you Queen fucking Harpy - spare us the act. I was right behind you in the queue and saw your entire pathetic confidence trick - that boy didn't so much as glance you - incidentally, given you can't act to save your blessed life, you should give it up. And don't you dare pretend that what you did was in anyway justified - You extorted a scared kid, a pure shake-down - and the kid is just off the damn boat - what a fucking fantastic ringing endorsement for Ireland you are". 

"Fook off ya prick - what the fook are ya you nosy little bollox? Get d'fook outta here". I was glaring now and hadn't averted my gaze once through the entire exchange. I'm fairly sure I may have been emitting steam at this point but I bit it back - "There's a GardaĆ­ station on this very street. I suggest you give that gentleman back his money or I will go to them instead". She sneered with contempt to the gallery "Go get the fooking Guards. I did fookin nothin' wrong. They can arrest that little prick for breaking me fooking back".

I shook my head and walked away, to the sound of the junior kraken mouthing off -  "he's off now, ya fooking showed him!". Problem was, I was in a bind - while what had happened was clearly extortion and textbook hustling, I was sceptical whether the police could in fact do anything about it. I walked down the stairs, passing the Russians and the crowd of rubber-neckers who were listening in. "Back in a second, sorry - stick here" I muttered to the bemused pair as I exited the building and jogged up to O'Connell St Garda station. I outlined the situation to the duty officer, who agreed it was disgraceful and that he'd send a patrol immediately. I thanked him, but figured that this might be a polite fobbing-off for an event that simply didn't have the priority to making it a pressing concern.

I returned and apologised again to the Russians, assuring that them the vast majority of Irish people were not like this. I joined my long-suffering ladyfriend for my now frozen wrap. She asked if the police were coming, and I answered that it was very unlikely they would arrive in time if they did come - they probably just didn't have the time and resources for such things and sadly this time the nastiest person won. I had no sooner outlined this theory when it was immediately falsified by a triumvirate of Boys in Blue making their way up the stairs. I filled them in, and pointed out the victims and the culprits. One cop approached her and politely asked if they had taken money from the students. “What the fook is that *** after saying?! Who the fook are you?!” she yelled at me. “I’m the fucking pope as far as you’re concerned” I shot back, immediately realising that response made bugger all sense, except maybe in some surrealist way. Still it made me feel better and temporarily stunned her so there was that. The cop took charge and reiterated his question.  She admitted to having the money but said she’d go to her lawyer and that the cop could sod off. He calmly clarified -  “You extorted money under duress. Now are you going to give it back or do I have to arrest you?”. Bizarrely, she refused to give it and he shook his head as he popped out the handcuffs “Seems rather odd to me you’re willing to get arrested over a tenner” he mused philosophically, with the patience of a saint on Xanax.  

At this point I returned downstairs to see how the Russians were doing. A few seconds later one cop re-appeared with a grin and a tenner between his fingers. He handed it to the Russians, and apologised for their experience. “Where ya from lads, Russia? Jesus you lot aren’t popular the moment! Be safe now, and don’t let ones like that push you around”. He turned to me and informed me that he hadn’t enough to hold her on once she surrendered the tenner, but that I might want to get out before her to avoid another verbal exchange - “She’s not happy with you at all” he grinned. The two students were very grateful, and I assured them the vast majority of Irish people were alright. One told me in halting English that “You..are Irish. They are…” … “…scangers most likely” I shrugged, as they smiled bemused and mystified by the unexplained interjection Irish slang. I bid them farewell, and prepared to beat a hasty retreat before the Krakens awoke. 

Full disclaimer - I feel obliged to point out at this juncture that I am myself a born and bred Northsider...

Now, if you’ve stuck with me this far, you might wonder what the point of this whole story was – a tenner isn’t much, and even though the behaviour of the two wagons was appalling, it wasn’t anything so bad that the guys wouldn’t have eventually shrugged it off when they realised the vast majority of Irish people are nothing like that. Nor is it particularly brag-worthy – liberating a half-score from some awful people isn’t going to feature in “Tales of Heroism” anytime soon. This is all true, but what happened next was the part that genuinely affected me – as my ladyfriend and I prepared to leave, an older black lady who had been quietly watching the whole thing turned to me and said “Thank you” so sincerely it took me off guard – I smiled but mentioned I didn’t really do anything more than I felt was right– no one deserves that nonsense, and I’d hope anyone who sees it would call it out. She smiled wistfully and told me that she’s been living in Dublin 15 years, and lost count of the amount of times that she’d been on the receiving end of abuse and no one has lifted a finger to help. “I wish there were many more like you” she said softly.

And at that moment, I felt a surge of something that took me completely by surprise. I understood exactly why I had gotten so enraged by what I saw; it wasn’t just the bad behaviour of the cantankerous crone and her crony (pun five) that had irked me – that was almost tangential to the issue. No, what had really made me fume was how so many other people saw exactly the same thing I had and did absolutely nothing. They saw someone vulnerable clearly upset, bamboozled, and exploited and still chose to turn a blind eye. And it was that mentality of “someone else’s problem” that struck a chord with me – while it’s long in the past, I’ll never forgot the numerous times I got the living daylights beaten out of me by a gang of thugs and people –older people, groups of adults, other teenagers - would just stroll past and pretend it wasn’t happening. I’ll always vividly remember one time I was covered in blood, held down by four or guys whilst the remainder of the gang took turns using my face and ribs for kicking practice,  and still being able to resolve the spectre of people scurrying past trying to remain oblivious to what was transpiring in front of them.

That wasn’t the worst beating I ever got by any stretch, but it wasn’t the attacks that stayed with me – I had been a soft target, but with time I got tougher, more assertive and streetwise enough to avoid the idiots looking for trouble. I was resilient and well supported by loving family and friends that I shrugged much of it off – but to this day I will never be able to understand how people can see all manner of obvious injustices being perpetuated in front of them and resolve to pretend it isn’t happening. And I suspect part of me will always be angry when people shirk their basic obligation to assist those in need of help or protection, even if that assistance is something as easy as calling the police and reporting an incident, or talking to a victim.  

That being said, I do understand why people don’t always intervene directly – sometimes we may not know all the facts, sometimes we’re scared of what the consequences might be. This is especially understandable in situations where physical violence is a factor - I remember a friend and I trying to stop a man who was punching a woman on O’Connell Street (Note to self: Avoid O’Connell Street) , only to get slapped around by the very woman he was punching. Indeed, had the villains of this story been two large men instead of two women I could bench-press I may have convinced myself direct intervention was a poor choice – but even in these situations, something as simple as getting the police can make a huge difference to the victim and the outcome.  If nothing else, it’s a simple human act that can make someone realise they’re not utterly on their own when bad things occur.

I’ll try to quit the rant now it’s out of my system, but if you ever see people being abused in any fashion, anything you can do to get them a little assistance will be far more appreciated than you’d ever realise – whether it’s directly intervening, getting them help or even just asking if they’re alright. We as humans do not exist in a vacuum, and while it’s tempting to dismiss such things as none of our business or not our problem, even a minor intervention can be enough to make a huge difference, and if nothing else it might help you sleep easy at night.

As an aside, I would like to point out that my experience with Irish cops has always been absolutely brilliant, whether I’ve been put face first through a window or gotten my car jacked - it’s a damn tough job and hats off to the cops yesterday who responded so quickly. I'd also like to assure non-Irish readers that in general, Dublin and indeed Ireland is a very friendly place to visit, and such events are rare. Science stuff will resume in the next post!    

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