Frances Frech and Jereme Dillard share a passion.
Two months before Time magazine published its July 17 cover story on Alzheimer’s, in which it pointed to “sticky plaques” of protein on the brain as a possible cause of the disease, Frances Frech had written all about “abnormal protein plaques” in her Health Information Project newsletter. The Time article went on about genetics as a risk factor, sloughing off possible environmental causes, while Frech pointed her pen at the presence of aluminum fluoride in water.
While millions of people may read the Time article, only a few hundred receive Frech’s newsletter. But that doesn’t bother her. The seventy-something (she refuses to give her exact age) mother of eight, grandmother of 18, and great-grandmother of 12 keeps to her crusade: Fluoride in drinking water harms humans.
“I’m never discouraged to the point that I would stop, never,” she says. “I write on average five letters a day, spend more on postage stamps than food.” She gave up sending e-mail because the people who responded “just wanted to argue.”
It’s not that she doesn’t have the energy to argue. Frech has plenty — even if walking is difficult these days; severe varicose veins led to an ulcer on her foot. Frech stays mobile by scooting around her Brookside home on a rolling office chair. Pauses in the conversation come only as she pinballs between an electric typewriter perched on a cluttered, waist-high wall shelf and a coffee table. Frech distrusts doctors, says her daughter, Carol Ivlow, who lives with her. That attitude has something to do with the misdiagnosis of a kidney ailment some years ago. The mistake nearly killed her.
“I wish people would start paying attention to her,” says Ivlow. “She’s 100 percent correct.”
Jereme Dillard has no doubt. Though their relationship is not quite like the one in Harold and Maude, the 1971 film about an affair between a 20-year-old man and an 80-year-old woman, there’s a chemistry between them. “She cares, wants to do something good,” says Jereme, who finds nothing odd in his friendship with Frances — though he looks as though he ought to be taking up a guitar instead of the cause against fluoride.
Jereme called Frances after he read one of her letters to the editor in PitchWeekly. Frances was a little taken aback by his interest in the connection between fluoride and Alzheimer’s. She’s used to crusading in the relative anonymity of the U.S. Postal Service. “You don’t really expect someone that young,” she says of Jereme, who is 20.
Frances says she and Jereme “always talk fluoride.” Frances has a B.A. in history and political science; Jereme graduated from high school. Yet both consume government reports, scientific studies, textbooks on chemistry and biochemistry, medical journals, and newspaper and magazine articles the way others might pore over the latest Judith Krantz novel or scroll down the newest ‘zine Web site. Get the two in the same room and facts, figures, protestations, and passion fly.
“They don’t want to admit what they’ve done,” Frances says of the chemical and aluminum industries and their waste by-product, fluoride. Phosphate-fertilizer industry workers scrape off the fluoride (hydrofluosilicic acid — the nation’s most widely used fluoridation chemical) residue left in smokestack scrubbers, then package and sell it to municipalities. “They’re making a profit selling the product where otherwise they would have to find a way to dispose of it as a toxic chemical.”
Frances lives by what she preaches. A distiller hooked up to the plumbing in Frances’ home filters out the fluoride. Economic considerations stop Jereme from going that far.
“I don’t think anyone should be forced to consume fluoridated water,” he says. “I can barely afford to buy bottled distilled water. I think there’s a lot of people, especially big families who are poor, who can’t afford it and they don’t even know they should be buying bottled water. I just don’t think it’s fair, especially if the U.S. Public Health Service says there’s certain people more at risk.”
His statement isn’t baseless. An April 1993 Public Health Service report states, “Existing data indicates that subsets of the population may be unusually susceptible to the toxic effects of fluoride and its compounds. These populations include the elderly, people with deficiencies of calcium, magnesium, and/or vitamin C, and people with cardiovascular and kidney problems.”
The list of “toxic effects of fluoride” has been growing since 1993. Articles and research papers from the United States and Europe suggest fluoride is a factor in bone cancer, weakening of the skeletal frame, the absorption of lead in children, higher infant mortality rates, kidney damage, and brain lesions that “resemble those found in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients.”
It’s not a question of whether Frances and Jereme are on to something — they are. And they are not alone. Dozens of anti-fluoride groups are at work around the world. The Fluoride Action Network’s Web site (www.fluoridealert.org) serves as the movement’s main resource center. Congress is also weighing in on the issue. In April, Wisconsin Republican Congressman F. James Sensenbrenner, chairman of the House Committee on Science, and Representative Ken Calvert, California Republican and chairman of the Subcommittee on Energy and Environment, began investigating the safety of fluoride in drinking water. Last month, Dr. William Hirzy, vice president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents EPA scientists, testified before the Senate Subcommittee on Wildlife, Fisheries, and Drinking Water, asking for a national review of fluoridation. While the American Dental Association and the Centers for Disease Control support 100 percent fluoridation in all U.S. drinking water by 2007 (the current level is around 62 percent), in Europe fluoride fears have brought an end to fluoridated drinking water. Only Britain, Ireland, and Spain continue its use.
Europeans may treat the issue seriously, but Americans don’t. “The minute you start talking about fluoride, people start thinking you’re a nut,” says Frances. That stigma hangs with her as it did with Allen and Jean McCone.
The McCones led the fight against fluoridating the Kansas City, Missouri, water system in the early 1960s. The couple gathered signatures to put the city’s purchase of fluoridation equipment on the ballot. The city ignored the petition, contending it was an administrative matter not subject to a public vote. In 1963, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled in favor of the McCones and the issue went before the people, who defeated fluoridation in 1964. But the issue resurfaced in 1980, and this time voters approved it. The next year, fluoride began flowing into Kansas City’s water system.
Allen McCone, a former veterinarian who now owns a nutritional supplement wholesale distribution company, remembers the harassment he faced. “You can’t argue the subject. People make fun of those speaking out,” he says.
The possibility of such harassment doesn’t discourage Jereme. “I get mad when I’m talking with people, because a lot of times they don’t even totally listen to you, and I’m being totally polite,” he says.
One payoff was getting a hearing before Gernie Gunter, director of the city’s Water Services Department. “I took all this information, everything I thought was scientific and that was proven — that wasn’t junk, that wasn’t propaganda — to him and his assistant, and they sat there and read it.”
After hearing him out and going over the information, Jereme says, Gunter said he would stop drinking tap water. “He said, ‘I will no longer drink it, but I can’t do anything to get it out of the public water supply.'” Jereme adds that Gunter recommended that he gather signatures for a referendum to get the issue back before a public vote.
Gunter doesn’t quite remember their conversation the same way. He denies saying he would stop drinking city water. “I drink the same tap water everybody else does,” Gunter says. He does remember giving Jereme the idea about a referendum. “It’s the same thing I would tell anyone who has a passion for a cause. It’s not my cause, but I’m obligated to give him suggestions in how to move forward with it.”
Gunter says he welcomes the EPA’s taking a second look to determine safety levels for fluoride in water, and he’s followed the congressional hearings on fluoride. “I think it’s something that’s going to come to the frontburner again,” he says.
Widespread media attention would kick Frances’ energy level up a notch. She would welcome the chance to hit the speaker’s podium again. Before taking on fluoride and in between the demands of motherhood, Frances had a career in journalism, a stint in the Coast Guard, success at slogan and jingle writing — she won $25,000 in a General Mills contest and her family’s weight in groceries from Sealtest Ice Cream — and selling freelance writing, mainly “rangeland romances and poetry,” she says.
Her step into public view came in 1971, after The Kansas City Times (The Star‘s morning paper) published an op-ed piece in which she took issue with the overpopulation theory presented by Paul Ehrlich in his bestseller The Population Bomb. Frances considered Ehrlich’s premise to be unscientific.
Her stand against the prevailing belief of the time led to lecture requests and an appearance on the Today Show in 1972. And her views on population control caught the attention of pro-life groups. Frances attended anti-abortion meetings and came away thinking the “unborn child was a real person.” It was a belief grounded more in science than religion. “They (anti-abortion groups) asked me if I was a Catholic. I said I wasn’t. They said, ‘Great, we need someone who’s not.'” Frances has never been a churchgoer and says she “doesn’t have a religious attitude.”
In 1973, Frances published The Great American Stork Market Crash, a book aimed at proponents of population control, and established herself as a spokeswoman for the right-to-life movement. In 1990, Frances read an article on the link between bone cancer and fluoride, and she launched her anti-fluoride quest. While she was representing the anti-abortion cause, she began warning audiences of the dangers of fluoride — and her relationship with pro-lifers cooled as a result. “Those people began to think there must be something wrong with me,” Frances recalls. “That somehow I had suddenly gone crazy. But I hadn’t. I had just become so angry that government health agencies could lie to you about this and it could actually be harming you.”
The right-to-life-sponsored speaking engagements dried up, but Frances’s anti-abortion stance remains (she believes abortion should be permitted only to save the mother’s life).
As with her stand on abortion, Frances believes she is right about fluoride. And she believes she will eventually be proven correct on its link with Alzheimer’s. For Frances and Jereme, the culprit will be the chemical bonding reaction between fluoride and aluminum sulfate (used to settle solid waste in water treatment plants), which creates aluminum fluoride in our drinking water.
Such a discovery will calm Jereme somewhat. He was raised by his grandmother Helen — he called her NeNe — in Mineola, Texas. “I had to watch her … you know, go downhill (as the Alzheimer’s progressed) over a 15-year period,” he says. “It was real slow and she tried to hide it for a long time.”
Maybe it’s that memory that brought Jereme to Frances — and by agreeing with Frances when she says, “I can’t understand why anybody would want people to be sick when they don’t have to be.”