George Pyle: It’s all about those precious bodily fluids

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cases of water are stored at the Sandy Operations Center at 9150 South, 150 East on Sunday, Feb. 17, 2019 for residents to drive thru and pick up. The no drink order now applies only to homes and businesses between 1700 East and 2000 East and 10600 South and 11400 South, the city announced Sunday. The city says the problem started about Feb. 6, when a fluoride pump malfunctioned because of a power outage. It flooded the water system with fluoride and that also led to high levels of lead and copper, enough that it made some people sick.

“Ever see a commie drink a glass of water?”

-- Gen. Jack D. Ripper

It is Oscar weekend, so let us pause to consider the best movie ever made. Or, at least, the best movie that has a tie-in to some of the news that’s going on hereabouts.

It is the 1964 classic by Stanley Kubrick, “Dr. Strangelove. Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.”

Air Force Gen. Ripper, masterfully performed by Sterling Hayden, was convinced that adding forms of the chemical fluoride to public drinking water systems was, “the most monstrously conceived and dangerous Communist plot we have ever had to face.”

He explained that theory, in chilling detail, to Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers) even as he has already given the command to launch a wave of B-52 bombers to attack the Soviet Union, starting World War III and ending the pernicious fluoridation threat to “our precious bodily fluids.”

And to keep fluoride out of other things, such as fruit juice and ice cream.

Spoiler alert: It didn’t turn out well. Although along the way the film is a collection of the best dark humor lines -- you laugh as you wince -- ever assembled in one place. Topped, perhaps, by the president of the United States (also Peter Sellers), shouting at a scuffling U.S. general and Soviet ambassador, “Gentlemen! You can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!”

So, for coming up on 55 years, all people of a certain age -- and film students who are even younger -- have had to do to instantly dismiss a conspiracy theory about fluoridation, or vaccinations, or chemtrails, or Area 51, or the World Trade Center being an inside job, or Barack Obama’s birth certificate, or who won the popular vote in the 2016 presidential election, is to summon our best cigar-chomping visage and growl, “Ice cream, Mandrake? Children’s ice cream?!”

Argument settled.

Popular culture moments can do that. Mary Tyler Moore helped make it OK for a woman to be single and professionally employed. “Will and Grace” did a great deal to normalize gay people to a general audience. Monty Python introduced us to the humanity of Canadian transvestite lumberjacks. And, though it may be difficult and painful to remember now, Bill Cosby -- first as a spy, then as a family man and physician -- showed us that black people could be something besides street thugs or domestic servants.


But in the last few days, Gen. Ripper’s worst nightmare has awakened.

Somebody at the Sandy Water Works apparently did not notice that a power failure had messed up the machines that measure out the fluoride that, as in most cities, is added to the drinking water to help prevent tooth decay in children.

Even granting, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does, that fluoridation of the water is one of the greatest public health inventions of the 20th century, there can be too much of anything. And too much fluorine can cause a chain reaction in a water supply that releases other chemicals, copper and heavy metals, that are unquestionably bad for people.

So now the whole city government in Sandy is in an uproar, fingers are being pointed, and people who haven’t seen “Dr. Strangelove” recently are asking whether fluoridation is really such a good idea.

It is. If, as with many other things, you do it right.

“The dose makes the poison,” as a 16th century Swiss doctor correctly noted. Sometimes, too little of a certain chemical is the problem.

If, for example, your tap water or swimming pool smells of chlorine, that doesn’t generally mean that there is too much of the sanitizing chemical present. It is more likely to mean that there is too little, and that what there is of it has been transmogrified into a different, and much smellier, substance by having been mixed with blood, sweat, pee and poo. So, yes, people will know if you’ve piddled in the pool.

The more important lesson, though, is that some of the most important things done by government are not the big, global, launching thermonuclear war stuff. It’s the down and dirty job of getting the mix right at the water treatment plant.

As Gen. Ripper wisely said. It’s all about those precious bodily fluids.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tribune staff. George Pyle.

George Pyle, editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, probably saw “Dr. Strangelove” four or five times before he realized that it wasn’t about nuclear war at all, but all about sexual repression. gpyle@sltrib.com