Bad Documentary Review: The Great Culling
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Tap water fluoridation has been called one of the most successful public health interventions of all time by the CDC. It has all of the hallmarks of a good public health intervention; it’s cheap way to prevent tooth decay, it can benefit everyone regardless of access to healthcare, and best of all it doesn’t require any effort for people to take advantage of it. Unfortunately like all public health interventions, it sounds like you’re doing something bad when you take it out of context. Tap water fluoridation attracts no small amount of conspiracy theorists claiming public health advocates want to dump “toxic chemicals” in the water supply.

Which brings me to my most recent find from my hunting trip in the Amazon: The Great Culling: Our Water by Paul Wittenberger. The film is described as: “an investigation of the theory that adding fluoride to drinking water is not as beneficial to dental health as originally thought, and may in fact be one of the causes of a cornucopia of neurological diseases that have arisen over the past several decades in America”. Fluoride fear mongering is nothing new, and it’s been covered multiple times on SBM. Even the most poorly designed studies about potential health risks of fluoridated tap water are still able sneak their way into prestigious medical journals and get tons of attention from the media.

Tap water fluoridation is safe and it really works for preventing tooth decay. According to the American Dental Association, tap water fluoridation prevents about 25% of tooth decay cases. They also estimate for most cities, every dollar spent on tap water fluoridation saves 38 dollars in dental treatment costs. Unfortunately because of documentaries like The Great Culling, they can get people to protest at city council meetings when tap water fluoridation is on the agenda. These groups are highly active and can push legislators to make the wrong decision.

Let’s look at one example: the town of Windsor, Ontario. In 2013, the city council decided to stop fluoridating their tap water after a town hall debate. You’ll never guess what happened next. Public health agencies started urging the city council to start fluoridating the water again after it was found that the cases of tooth decay requiring urgent treatment in children increased by 51%. The number of such cases was double that of neighboring counties that did fluoridate their water. So documentaries like this can spur political action that leads to bad public health outcomes.

The Great Culling misrepresents the history of tap water fluoridation, chemistry, and the causes of serious fluorosis. It shouldn’t be taken seriously by anyone. Let’s look at why.

Revisionist history

In The Great Culling, Wittenberger’s argument is that key research used to push for tap water fluoridation was funded by the Mellon Institute. The problem with this is that as a direct result, Wittenberger argues that it’s all a conspiracy so Alcoa could get away with dumping fluoride pollutants into the water supply. The major problem with Wittenberger’s argument is that it assumes a relationship between the Mellon Institute and Alcoa. While Andrew Mellon was a major stockholder in Alcoa, he was also a major stockholder in lots of other companies: Westinghouse Electric, Gulf Oil, the Standard Steel Car, and the Pittsburgh Coal to name a few. Most historical records indicate that Mellon took little interest in the companies he invested in and I haven’t seen anything that would suggest otherwise. The Mellon Institute is distinct from Alcoa, but not from Andrew Mellon.

The finding that lead to Dr. Gerard Cox proposing we artificially fluoridate the water supply in some areas came from the Utensil Fellowship at the Mellon Institute. While the Utensil Fellowship was funded by Alcoa, the fellowship had nothing to do with fluoride. That’s a far more interesting story, that we don’t have time for. The short version is that the Fellowship was established in 1926 to investigate the health risks of aluminum cooking utensils. One piece of evidence used to suggest aluminum utensils might be toxic was the high incidence of mottled teeth of people who lived in bauxite mining towns.

So naturally Gerard Cox and his team at the Mellon Institute investigated. Their findings weren’t different from that of Dr. Frederick McKay, who investigated cases of what was called (at that time) “Colorado Brown Stain”. McKay observed that despite the appearance of their teeth, the children who had the “Colorado Brown Stain” (lol what a terrible name) had far fewer cavities than children who didn’t. Because of Dr. Gerard Cox’s work 21 years later, funded by the Mellon Institute, we now know that it was the fluoride ions in the water that were responsible for the staining and the protective effects. The discovery of the protective effects of fluoride really was the result of coincidence, not conspiracy.

But let’s assume for the sake of argument that Andrew Mellon had some reason to put together a giant scientific conspiracy with the help of the Mellon Institute. The question still remains, why? The film never makes any concrete argument as to why Mellon would have such an interest. However it is insinuated that Alcoa would want to do this to get away with dumping its “toxic pollutants” into the water supply. In order to get away with something, you have to have something to get away with. While there were laws against dumping stuff in the water supply, the risk of getting caught was low and the penalties were a joke. The EPA didn’t even exist until the 1970s. This argument is patently absurd.

Chemistry fails

The Great Culling features infinitely more interviews with holders of PhD’s in chemistry than any documentary I’ve previously reviewed. It should come as no surprise that The Great Culling misrepresents basic facts about chemistry at every turn. For instance:

When they started using fluoride, they used sodium fluoride that they were able to get from the aluminum industry. The fluoride that is being put in the water now, not back in the 1940s, now it’s a mineral that is coming from the phosphate industry. It is a byproduct that is a very toxic waste. It’s basically fluoride bound to silica, and its called fluorosillic acid. Extremely toxic.

While it’s true that fluorosilicic acid is toxic, the same is true of sodium fluoride. When fluorosillic acid is added to water at the concentrations used to fluoridate drinking water, it dissociates and releases fluoride ions. There’s no real difference between an atom of fluorine from sodium fluoride or fluorosillic acid once it is floating free in the water. Fluorosillic acid is used because it is cheaper compared to sodium fluoride, but from a safety standpoint they are the same. If they’re handled appropriately, they’re safe.

The latter half of The Great Culling almost becomes a war on fluorine. They actually argue that any medications that have fluorine in their composition that have side effects or are associated with something bad happening is because those drugs contained fluorine. While they provide multiple examples, they choose to go after Prozac. Which is just mind-boggling. So what is their beef with Prozac? One “expert” who has a PhD in Organic Chemistry states that the main ingredient in Prozac is fluoride. I have no idea how this person has a PhD in Organic Chemistry because the main ingredient in Prozac is Prozac.

Prozac has three fluorine molecules in its composition, however that doesn’t mean fluoride is the active ingredient. Prozac works because its chemical structure makes it good at competitively binding to enzymes that reuptake serotonin. Fluorine just happens to be part of that structure. In order for fluoride to be the active molecule in Prozac, the fluorine atoms would have to dissociate from the main structure as fluoride ions. However a cursory look at the Prozac page on Wikipedia will reveal that fluoxetine’s main active metabolite leaves the body with all three fluorine molecules attached. So if the fluorine keeps its electrons inside the ride at all times, how is fluoride supposed to be the active ingredient in Prozac? Right, that’s all nonsense.

This war on the third-most-prescribed antidepressant in the country seems to come from Mike Adams. Mike Adams is very deeply entrenched in the anti-psychiatry camp, and openly praises Scientology for their war on psychiatry. His knowledge of psychiatric medications is not based upon a place of understanding, which his apparent from his comments in the film, such as:

Prozac is made up almost entirely of fluoride molecules. SSRI drugs are similar molecularly to some of the elements in fluoride.

For the record, Prozac is not made up almost entirely of fluoride molecules. He goes on to argue that Prozac was responsible for the Columbine shooting. He believes this because both of the shooters had taken SSRI drugs and that these drugs “…make your mind think that you aren’t in the real world. That you’re just kind of experiencing a false reality and I think Fluoride has much the same effect”. This argument is ridiculous, and it’s obvious.

Fluorosis is not caused by fluoridated water

The Great Culling also tries to sell you the idea fluoridated tap water can actually harm your teeth by causing dental fluorosis. Dental fluorosis is a condition caused when fluoride intake is very high while the teeth are forming. This causes a change in the appearance of the tooth enamel – most commonly seen as opaque white patches. In severe (and very rare) cases it can cause a dark brownish stain or even deformities of the tooth. While some people may seek cosmetic treatment in severe cases, these cases are not the result of fluoridated-tap water.

Tap water fluoridation is only done in communities where the fluoride concentration in the water is below the optimal level (about 0.7-1 parts per million). If someone were to develop severe fluorosis, it would be because their water has a very high concentration of fluoride or they got too much fluoride from some other source. When it’s found that drinking water has too much fluoride, it is typically defluorinated to optimal levels. The documentary conveniently `leaves these facts out and tries to convince the viewer that the most severe presentation of dental fluorosis as the most common presentation.

Suppose one were to buy into this, the next logical question is: what other problems would too much fluoride cause? Well The Great Culling tries to sell you on the answer with the same false premise. They insinuate that tap water fluoridation could also cause skeletal fluorosis, the accumulation of fluoride in the bones, damaging both bones and joints. The issue is the same: it’s impossible for this to happen from tap water that is kept at safe levels of fluoride, and defluoridated if too high. In general, skeletal fluorosis is caused by inhalation of fluoride dust and fumes by industrial workers, or drinking water (generally from wells or untreated sources) that is known to have unsafe levels of fluoride. By an unsafe amount, I mean a truly absurd amount.

They use a very obscure example to try to demonstrate their point. One of the film’s experts explains that it took doctors 10 years to discover that a woman’s back pain was caused by skeletal fluorosis. They found that she was getting excess fluoride from drinking Lipton iced tea. The levels of fluoride in the tea mix far exceeding federal guidelines but I wouldn’t throw out your tea just yet. According to the NEJM report, the woman had habitually consumed a pitcher of tea made with 100 to 150 tea bags daily for 17 years. I’m not defending Lipton, I’m just saying there are some serious extenuating circumstances here. This isn’t something that anyone needs to be worried about (and it had nothing to do with her tap water).

Conclusion: Conspiracy weary

Tap water fluoridation is a safe and effective public health intervention that prevents tooth decay, that’s it. Nothing in The Great Culling should make you think otherwise, not that I’m suggesting you watch it. The film just kind of throws misinformation at you with the hopes that something will stick. The film left me confused more than anything. The film starts out with Wittenberger talking about the first commandment inscribed on the Georgia Guidestone: Maintain humanity under 500,000,000 in perpetual balance with nature”. The monument draws a lot of attention from conspiracy theorists because of its anonymous creators and ominous endorsement of eugenics and population control. Therefore, it doesn’t really come as a surprise when Wittenberger drops this bombshell in the first few minutes:

I have a question for you: how do you suppose [they] plan on eliminating over 90 percent of the population? Perhaps by using the oldest trick in the book by doing it right under our noses. Then cloak it in the phrase, “it’s all for your own good”.

Naturally your response is: “oh, this is one of those films”. But you’d be wrong, the rest of the film isn’t spent trying to prove some globalist eugenics conspiracy. If it were like that, it’d be a lot more interesting. Normally I would try and point out what the creators’ financial interests were in its message, but I genuinely don’t know. Mike Adams contributed significantly to the budget of this film, and that certainly explains why he gets so much screen time in it. But after that, I’m really coming up short. The film spends almost 5 minutes showing off their LaMotte Fluoride Tester. Does anyone featured in this documentary have any financial ties to LaMotte? Not that I’ve been able to find. It really seems like they just crammed all the footage they got with their budget, added commentary, and hoped it all worked out. It didn’t and this the result.

Tap water fluoridation is safe and not something you should be worried about. Tap water fluoridation is one of the most successful public health interventions available and is a cost effective way to prevent tooth decay. While The Great Culling is a grossly incompetent mess, films like can be incredibly dangerous. If films like this can convince you to question a basic aspect of your reality, like the safety of your drinking water, they can also leave you confused and incredibly prone to manipulation about other things. If you were wrong about your drinking water being safe, what else are you wrong about? That’s how Mike Adams sells you a book.

The Great Culling even shows how conspiracy theory documentaries can harm people financially if they adopt conspiracy theory beliefs and act on them. Let’s say someone chose to believe the documentary and believes that tap water fluoridation is a threat to their health. What actions are they going to take now that they’re convinced their local water company is poisoning them by putting fluoride in their tap water? According to Mike Adams you should either purchase a reverse osmosis filter for your house or spend the time to go get water that isn’t fluoridated from…somewhere. Other suggestions in the film included not eating food that has fluoride in it, like canned soups, and testing products for fluoride.

This sequence discussed above, lasting about five minute, demonstrates the harm beliefs in conspiracy theories can cause you if they’re acted upon. Purchasing a reverse osmosis system is expensive, they require changing filters, and they waste a lot of water. Purchasing all of your water unfluoridated isn’t logistically or financially practical because unfluoridated drinking water is possibly the most niche market possible. Testing everything for fluoride requires at a minimum a fluoride testing kit, and even if your food has fluoride in it… what then? Are you going to refuse to go out to eat with your friends because the food has fluoride in it?

It’s not just the financial harm, conspiracy theories can be emotionally harmful too. Even just doing one of the aforementioned things is adding a lot of new stressors for no benefit. It’s adding another step in your life that you have to do. Maybe you do find that store that sells unfluoridated drinking water, but now you have to go to that specific store and buy more anytime you need drinking water. Then you also have to keep a place in your fridge for your special unfluoridated drinking water. You see where I’m going with this? It’s a lot of things you now have to do, for no actual health benefits.

There’s a lot of money in being a conspiracy theory content creator, and Mike Adams of all people knows this. Conspiracy theories are driven by beliefs about the motives of others, then finding any facts that can be stretched to support those beliefs. A well-presented conspiracy theory can make it seem like there is a group of rogue actors working to push governments to subvert the public interest to their personal benefit. While it’s true that governments sometimes make decisions that aren’t in our best interest when analyzed in retrospect, it’s never a grand conspiracy. In the cases where this does happen, the reality always much more entertaining and boneheaded than a nefarious group of masterminds meeting in a shadowy room.

Conspiracy theories have on-occasion found a way to bleed into the mainstream, but it’s always felt like a sideshow more than anything else. But when conspiracy theory groups on social media are allowed to grow unchecked, they start to bleed into the mainstream. We’ve seen the consequences of this throughout the past year. People who believed that 5G towers are dangerous and spread COVID-19 ended up burning down dozens of 5G towers in the UK and Europe. Conspiracy theories have led to people refusing the wear masks, accelerating the spread of COVID-19. Conspiracy theories about the results of the 2020 presidential election caused a violent mob to attack the capitol, killing 5 people. Conspiracy theories, even potentially benign ones like tap water fluoridation, can become dangerous quickly when people act on their beliefs.

Documentaries like The Great Culling serve as a sort of hook into the conspiracy theory cyber sphere. They often appear alongside other sensationalist health documentaries like What The Health. While those documentaries are bad, conspiracy documentaries like The Great Culling are markedly worse. After watching The Great Culling you might visit Mike Adam’s site and read about COVID-19 vaccine conspiracy theories. You might watch similar fluoride conspiracy documentaries also on the Amazon’s store to further entrench conspiracy beliefs formed due to the movie. If you join a Facebook group about one of these “documentaries”, you’ll probably hear about other conspiracy documentaries, watch those, and maybe join their associated groups. The cycle continues until you’re the crazy conspiracist at Thanksgiving.

The Great Culling doesn’t belong on Amazon, but it seems that they have removed it from Amazon Prime videos so you can’t watch it for free. It’s better than nothing I suppose. Conspiracy theories are always going to be a problem on social media platforms, but platforms can’t hide behind the “it’s all online” defense anymore. It’s not all online, because clearly these online groups cause people to do stuff offline. The reach and impact of these online groups can be measured and reasoned about. The factual foundation of these conspiracy beliefs can also be evaluated and found to be shaky.

It’s safe to say given certain events over the past few years that there is a social media fueled-conspiracy problem. The bad news is I don’t think critical thinking classes are going to fix the problem. I don’t think beliefs in conspiracy theories are the result of a lack of critical thinking. I think people see a video that appeals to them, they get sucked into conspiracy groups where their newly formed beliefs are reinforced, and then it becomes impossible to talk them about even if it’s harming them. Sure, critical thinking skills can prevent things from getting to that stage, but nobody is immune to their lizard brain not liking to change what it believes in response to contrary evidence.

The best way to fight harmful conspiracy groups is to kick them off of platforms when it has been shown that they’re harmful. If there is some business risk to taking harmful conspiracy content off of your platform, I haven’t seen it yet. In 2019, Amazon removed conspiracy documentaries like Vaxxed and Cancer Can Be Killed. Their was no massive consumer backlash, Amazon is still Amazon. Facebook banned the President of the United States for tweeting conspiracy theories about the election that caused a violent insurrection. Of course this brazen act of censorship meant tons of people left the platform and…Facebook’s stock increased by five dollars. It’s genuinely puzzling to me that big tech companies don’t do more in this area, it’s a PR gimme of the highest order.

But at the end of the day, I don’t control that. Tap water fluoridation is safe and you definitely shouldn’t let The Great Culling change your mind. The Great Culling is a mess of a documentary even by my standards, I wouldn’t even recommend it as a hate watch. The good news is the intro implies that The Great Culling was going to be a multipart series. I’ve been unable to find a sequel. Let’s hope it stays that way.

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