STRANGER THAN STRANGELOVE: FLUORIDE AND A MOHAWK CIVIL WAR
with Melissa Gallico
Episode 11 of the #Fpollution podcast reveals how fluoride air pollution led to the Mohawk civil war at Akwesasne. With audio commentary from local Environmental Science Officer, Dr. Henry Lickers.
Ep11 with Melissa Gallico
Stranger than Strangelove: Fluoride and the Mohawk Civil War at Akwesasne
When two aluminum factories opened along the nearby banks of the St. Lawrence waterways, the Mohawk tribe at Akwesasne soon noticed chronic health effects in their cattle, most of whom would not live beyond five years. This episode of the #Fpollution podcast reveals how fluoride air pollution at Akwesasne devastated their traditional way of life and contributed to the community's descent into civil war. With audio commentary from local Environmental Science Officer, Dr. Henry Lickers. Hosted by Melissa Gallico.
Melissa Gallico is a former FBI analyst and military intelligence officer. She is also author of The Hidden Cause of Acne, illustrator of F Is for Fluoride, and host of the #Fpollution podcast, dedicated to exposing the pollution story behind fluoridation. She has a degree in science and technology in international affairs (STIA) from Georgetown University and a master's degree in international security studies from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland where she spent a year as a Fulbright scholar to the United Kingdom.
Featured references for this episode:
"Industrial Fluoride Pollution: Chronic Fluoride Poisoning in Cornwall Island Cattle" by Lennart Krook and George Maylin, Cornell Veterinarian, vol. 69(8), April 1989
"Dental Fluorosis in Cattle" by Lennart Krook et al, Cornell Veterinarian, vol. 73(4), October 1983
"The St. Regis Syndrome" by Janet Raloff, Science News, vol. 118(3), July 19, 1980
"An island unfit for man or beast" by Julianne Labreche, Maclean's, July 30, 1979
"The Faces of Pollution : In N.Y., Toxic Waste, Contaminated Animals Threaten Mohawk Culture’s Survival" by Mary Esch, Los Angeles Times, January 24, 1988
Henry Lickers presentation at Fluoride Action Network's 4th Citizens Conference:
For other references and resources discussed in this episode, see the links in the transcript below.
READ THE TRANSCRIPT.
This podcast is produced by Gallico Studios, a multimedia effort supported by a community of activists who share the goal of exposing the pollution story behind fluoridation. To join the studio or learn more, visit our website at .
Melissa Gallico: Welcome to #Fpollution podcast. I'm your host, Melissa Gallico, author of The Hidden Cause of Acne: How Toxic Water is Affecting Your Health and What You Can Do About It and F Is for Fluoride: A Feasible Fairytale for Freethinkers 15 and Up.
Season one of the #Fpollution podcast exposes the pollution story behind artificial water fluoridation in the United States. First, we followed a paper trail, which is available for anyone to see in the show notes at Fpollution.com, showing how corporate polluters influenced the science—and public health officials—to obscure the negative health effects of their fluoride air pollution. Then we learned how the adverse health effects of fluoride seemingly got past all the big federal agencies, like the EPA, the CDC, and the Surgeon General.
We also launched a sidebar series called “Stranger than Strangelove” to tell some of the more overlooked aspects of the American fluoride tragedy. The first episode in the series, episode 6, focused on a secret government fluoridation experiment at mental institutions for children in Massachusetts in the 1940s and 1950s. In today’s episode, we’ll continue our “Stranger than Strangelove” series with the true story of how fluoride air pollution from two U.S. aluminum plants decimated the traditional economy of the Mohawk Nation at Akwesasne—a Native American tribe bordering upstate New York and Ontario, Canada—and contributed to their community’s devastating descent into civil war.
In the Mohawk language, Akwesasne means “where the partridge drums” because the sound of the rapids along the St. Lawrence River where the group is situated reminded the people of the sound a partridge makes with its wings on a log during mating season. But in the early 1900s, the rivers in Akwesasne suddenly became a lot quieter when industry moved to town and built dams to produce hydroelectric power for the nearby factories.
According to Frank Seamans, the lead fluoride litigator in the mid-1900s for the Aluminum Company of America (also known as Alcoa), prior to World War II, Alcoa never received any complaints about their fluoride air pollution despite a lack of any type of pollution control devices because they didn’t put the factories in physical locations that would cause a lot of damage. Seamans wrote about this in a book we discussed in episode 3.
But back in 1903, downwind of the farmers and ranchers at Akwesasne, the Aluminum Company of America built what was to become the longest continually operating aluminum factory in the world. In 1958, Reynolds Metals built a second aluminum factory in the same region. As you might recall from previous episodes, due to fluoride’s natural affinity for aluminum, aluminum factories have historically been the worst offenders when it comes to fluoride air pollution.
To do this story justice, I’d like to share it with you as much as possible through the eyes of the people who have been affected by it and have been working to correct it for future generations. One of those people is Henry Lickers, the longtime director of the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne Department of the Environment. In May 2019, Dr. Lickers was appointed to a 4-year term as a Canadian commissioner to the International Joint Commission, a body created by the United States and Canada as an independent advisor to the two governments regarding issues of water boundaries.
But in the 1970s, Henry Lickers was a recent college graduate from Trent University where he majored in biology. He had no preconceptions about fluoride being anything but beneficial for health. He tells the story of why he started to change his mind in a talk he gave at the Fluoride Action Network’s 4th citizen’s conference on fluoridation in 2010. Here’s Dr. Lickers talking about how he became interested in the negative health effects of fluoride at the FAN conference:
Little did Henry Lickers know that as he was educating himself by reading the extensive literature on the toxicology of fluoride, he was about to accept a job on the other side of the world working in the department of the environment for another indigenous group who had been exposed to hazardous amounts of fluoride air pollution for decades. Dr. Lickers picks up the story on the FAN stage:
The veterinarian Lickers is referring to here is Dr. Lennart Krook, a professor of pathology and associate dean at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell University. Krook was also the longtime editor-in-chief of the Cornell Veterinarian, a peer-reviewed scientific journal where he published multiple studies from his work at Akwesasne.
Prior to the diagnosis from Dr. Krook, the Canadian government had already become aware of potential fluoride contamination on the island in 1969 when the Ontario Ministry of the Environment began monitoring for fluoride in vegetation and found excessive levels on plants growing in the area. In 1971, the first complaint of fluorosis in cattle was filed by a resident and verified by local officials. A cash settlement was eventually negotiated directly with Reynolds Metals and a New York state court ordered them to reduce emissions. The company spent $18 million to install pollution control devices and reported a drop in fluoride emission from 307 pounds per hour to 112 pounds per hour by 1973.
The Canadian government and New York health officials assured the Mohawk Nation at Akwesasne that the fluoride emissions that continued to reach their land were well within levels established by scientific studies to be safe. Of course, if you’ve been following along with the podcast, you know those studies were created on the behalf of corporate polluters to mitigate their vulnerability to lawsuits over fluoride poisoning. Their own legal briefings show they believed their industries would not survive if it became known that chronic exposure to low doses of fluoride is a health hazard. Internal documents reveal they were well aware that they were vulnerable to extensive litigation over fluoride toxicity, not only from the communities they were poisoning, but from their own factory workers who had been showing signs of severe fluoride poisoning for decades.
Despite government assurances, the cattle at Akwesasne were still dying. A doctor sent by Reynolds to investigate claimed the cause of the herd’s declining health was parasites. That’s when the residents at Akwesasne decided to do some independent research and asked Dr. Krook at Cornell for his assessment.
Krook concludes that all the cattle on the island were suffering from fluoride toxicity and would not live more than 5 years. He determined that the level of fluoride deemed by the National Academy of Sciences to be safe in forage—40 parts per million—should be reduced to a level as low as 13 ppm. His report was published in the Cornell Veterinarian in 1979. I will link to it in the notes. Krook argued that the fluoride standards set by the National Academy of Sciences were invalid in the field because they were based on studies of fluoride exposure in healthy young animals who were not exposed to fluoride in utero or during the critical first few months of their life when their bones are rapidly developing. They also weren’t exposed to fluoride air pollution.
In addition, Krook identified 5 manifestations of dental fluorosis in cattle that were not recognized in what he described as the “limited and superficial” classification system for dental fluorosis set by the National Academy of Sciences. I will link to that paper as well.
Here’s how Lickers describes the health effects the cows at Akwesasne were experiencing:
In the video of Licker’s presentation at the FAN conference, the Fluoride Action Network shares some footage of cows suffering from dental and skeletal fluorosis, including footage of a cow walking on its elbows, as Lickers’ described it. It can be difficult to watch but I’ll include it in the show notes, along with his full talk.
I was also moved by the touching ways the Mohawk people responded to these chronic illnesses in their cattle:
The Akwesasne worked with other university researchers, as well. In addition to Dr. Krook and his colleagues at Cornell, there was a professor and the founder of the Environmental Studies program at the university of Montana, Dr. Clancy Gordon, who examined thousands of plant samples from Akwesasne and confirmed the many diseased and dying plants were a result of fluoride air pollution.
A medical team led by Bertram Carnow, the director of occupational medicine at the University of Illinois, studied the people of Akwesasne to determine how the fluoride air pollution might be impacting their health. One of the methods they used was to measure the amount of fluoride in the tooth enamel of the island’s residents. All of the measurements were elevated above the normal range. They also observed “significant numbers of people with abnormalities of the muscular, skeletal, nervous and hematologic (blood) systems.” Local physicians noted high rates of anemia, irritability, rashes, diabetes, high blood pressure and thyroid disease.
Carnow’s team concluded that all of the species they considered—from plants to cattle to humans—experienced heavy exposure to fluoride. They called for an immediate reduction in fluoride emissions from the plant and a detailed epidemiological study of the local residents.
The aluminum companies did cut their fluoride emissions even further. Reynolds reported a reduction in their fluoride pollution at the plant from 112 pounds per hour in 1973 to 75 pounds per hour by the end of the decade. According to Donald Walters, a senior technical advisor at EPA’s Office of Air Quality, Planning, and Standards, the Canadian government believed additional reductions in fluoride emissions were warranted but the U.S. contingent felt the data did not support their conclusion.
In 1980, the Canadian Ministry of Health and Welfare launched an official epidemiological study into the possible health effects of fluoride air pollution on the people at Akwesasne. It was led by Irving Selikoff, director of the Environmental Sciences Laboratory at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. I have not been able to view this report. It’s available in the archives at Mount Sinai but I was told it is restricted, possibly because it contains personal information of the residents. I asked if there was a sanitized version and was told to check PubMed for published studies but I didn’t find much there either. The full report was submitted to the Canadian government in two parts in 1984 and 1985 but I couldn’t find either one in their archives. There are a few print copies in libraries in Canada but if anyone has a digital copy of this report or is able to locate it online, please send it my way. I’d love to see it and also include it in the show notes for this episode.
Other people who apparently ran into difficulty accessing the results of the study were the people at Akwesasne, many of whom participated in the research itself. Elizabeth Hoover, a professor of American history at Brown University, writes about the Mount Sinai study in her book published in 2017, entitled The River Is in Us: Fighting Toxics in a Mohawk Community. After interviewing many of the local people at Akwesasne, she writes that when the researchers finished gathering their evidence, they packed up and left without providing any useful information to the residents. One of the health professionals she spoke with, a woman named Agnes, recalled that the community attempted to go out and look for the information but the end result was that it was gone.
Hoover explains that Selikoff and his team of 40 physicians, dentists, and environmental specialists established an on-site clinic to conduct physical exams, take x-rays, gather blood, urine, and fat samples, and scan for mercury, PCB’s and an insecticide called mirex. She doesn’t describe any of the tests related to fluoride except for blood tests, which did show elevated levels but apparently were no higher than those seen in people living in communities with artificially fluoridated drinking water. The researchers did not document any “gross health effects” from fluoride exposure but they did warn that adverse effects could manifest in the next twenty years.
Without being able to access the official report from these studies, I am unable to provide an assessment for how the research team could have missed the obvious negative health effects of fluoride the way we did in last week’s episode on the expert panel convened around this same time period, in 1983, by the United States Surgeon General to investigate the medical health effects of fluoride in drinking water. But looking at this study from the outside, it’s easy to identify a few question marks.
First, according to a contemporaneous account written by Donald Walters, the Senior Technical Advisor for EPA’s Office of Air Quality, Planning, and Standards, the study by Selikoff was completed in 1982 and EPA was expecting the results by the end of the year or 1983 at the latest. But the final report was not published until 1985. Why was there such a difference in when he thought the results would be released and the actual date of publication? Maybe there is an innocent reason but as we saw with the draft report from the expert panel to the Surgeon General, a delay in timing can sometimes indicate that there were extra cooks in the kitchen.
In his book, The Fluoride Deception, investigative journalist Christopher Bryson notes that in 1980 and 1981, the years Selikoff was tapped to lead the study in Akwesasne, he and the Mount Sinai School of Medicine received two grants totaling nearly half a million dollars from the National Institute of Dental Research to study “Long-term, low-level exposure to environmental agents” in humans. NIDR was literally founded on fluoridation. H. Trendley Dean, the so-called “Father of Fluoridation” was its first director. Did this work or their interaction with researchers at Mount Sinai in any way influence the final report on the effects of fluoride at Akwesasne?
Furthermore, the financial stakes for this study were higher than anyone realized—with the exception of perhaps the polluters themselves. Nearly two dozen American farmers located near the plant were receiving compensation for their cattle, but the people of Akwesasne didn’t want compensation. They wanted to stop the pollution. “They can pay us $80 billion,” Lickers is quoted as saying, “but if we can’t live here, what good is it?”
In 1979, the year before Selikoff launched his study, the tribe filed a class action lawsuit over the fluoride air pollution from Reynolds and Alcoa for $150 million. Now that’s a lot of money, but an even bigger threat was the precedent such a lawsuit could set if successful. As Reynold’s own lawyers argued in the Martin trial discussed in episode 3, any successful personal injury lawsuit over fluoride air pollution could potentially topple the entire industry and bring down several other heavy fluoride-polluting industries along with it. Selikoff’s inability to pin a single negative health effect on fluoride air pollution severely undercut the Mohawk’s lawsuit and the companies ended up paying just $650,000 in damages, a far cry from the $150 million asked for in the claim.
Also, as a journalist named Janet Raloff reported, any documented negative health effects to humans from fluoride would have forced EPA to reexamine their federal regulations on fluoride emissions. Under the Clean Air Act, fluoride was listed as a “welfare” pollutant, meaning it causes economic damage to crops, etc. but is not a human health hazard. This classification prohibited EPA from setting any enforceable federal regulations based on health effects and instead they issued guidelines based on the best available technology that proves to be cost effective for industry which individual states may or may not decide to follow. “[S]hould notable correlations between fluoride exposure and adverse health effects be found in Selikoff’s epidemiological study,” Raloff writes, “major changes in the way EPA looks at fluoride could result, including its reclassification as hazardous.”
In the end, fluoride was not reclassified as a health-related form of air pollution and as EPA’s Donald Walters assured industry lawyers in his presentation in 1983—before even receiving the results of the study—EPA did not have any reason to change the federal strategy for controlling fluoride air pollution.
Henry Lickers briefly mentions Dr. Selikoff’s study in his presentation at the FAN conference and all he says is that it taught the tribe that the tools of epidemiology sometimes aren’t sharp enough to cut down to the community level to see what the impacts are. But for the people who have been living at Akwesasne for generations, the effects of fluoride air pollution are impossible to ignore.
In an interview with Elizabeth Hoover, the American history professor from Brown University, one woman from Akwesasne describes her frustration when the warning from the Mount Sinai researchers came true and she began to experience the health effects of fluoride toxicity twenty years later. She is part of a cohort of women who suffer from severe arthritis and other ailments they attribute to exposure to industry pollution.
“They knew,” she said. “Mount Sinai said something, so why didn’t somebody make a plan? And say, ‘This is how you reduce fluoride’… Nobody knew it’s in every canned food, in water. Who knew that? Nobody knows fluoride is high in grapes, in grape jelly? Who knew that? Well I know it now. And toothpaste… there’s alternatives. Nobody knew that, nobody said.”
In his presentation at the FAN conference, Henry Lickers explains the impact of fluoride pollution in a way his American audience is likely to understand. He put a U.S. dollar price tag on it, and it starts with a B:
In an interview with activists from Fluoride Free Durham in 2014, Lickers says that price tag has more than doubled since 2011.
He also comments on all the new research that suggests prenatal exposure to fluoride leads to a decrease in IQ; we covered the latest study in episode 9 of the podcast. Speaking of the neurotoxic effects of fluoride, Lickers says, “We depend on that five percent of brilliant minds in order to drive society forward and our people forward… It doesn’t take too much sense to realize you are putting your communities under real stress.”
Long after Selikoff’s research team came and went, the aluminum factories around Akwesasne continued to spew fluoride air pollution into the surrounding community.
In 2013, the Mohawk tribe at Akwesasne along with the state of New York reached a settlement with Alcoa and Reynolds Metals for $19.4 million for damages to natural resources and cultural practices due to their release of industrial pollutants into the environment. One of the first things the tribe chose to do with the funds was pay to remove a hydroelectric dam blocking over 500 miles of tributaries flowing from the St. Lawrence River. The dam had been in operation for nearly 100 years but was recently abandoned when it stopped being profitable. It was the first time a federally licensed dam was decommissioned by a Native American tribe. They’re now working to restock Atlantic salmon smolts in cold-water streams within the watershed. The salmon have been missing from the basin for over a century.
The Mohawk tribe at Akwesasne posted a time-lapse video of the dam’s removal on their YouTube channel—I’ll put it in the show notes. It’s 3 minutes of pure catharsis following a hundred years of unnatural calm.
With the rapids restored, the partridges living along the streams at Akwesasne are once again free to drum their wings.
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