Week of 4/25/2004

Dear EarthTalk: Are there toothpastes on the market that don't contain chemicals or artificial sweeteners?

—Jeffrey Moss, Westport, CT

Most conventional toothpastes use saccharin as a sweetener. Although it has not been proven that saccharin causes cancer in humans, many studies have linked it to cancer in laboratory animals, and some experts, including Dr. Samuel Epstein of the University of Illinois Medical Center and the Center for Science in the Public Interest, recommend that consumers avoid it.

Fluoride has also come under fire in recent years because of its suspected ties to bone cancer, hip fractures and fluorosis, white spots and blotching on teeth caused by excessive ingestion of fluoride. Although the American Dental Association (ADA) strongly endorses fluoride-containing products, claiming they are safe and effective for cavity prevention, some experts argue that if fluoride can damage tooth-forming cells, as in fluorisis, then other harm to the body may also occur.

Triclosan is the most often used antibacterial agent in toothpaste. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers triclosan a pesticide and a chlorophenol, part of a class of chemicals thought to cause cancer in humans. Sodium lauryl/laureth sulfate, a foaming agent, and sorbitol are two other oral hygiene ingredients whose safety has been questioned. And most so-called "whitening" toothpastes use sodium or potassium hydroxides, also known as lye, considered a poison by the Food and Drug Administration.

For many years the alternatives to mass-market toothpastes were plain baking soda or bad-tasting pastes that most adults disliked and kids refused to use. There are many new pastes on the market now that, if somewhat less sweet-tasting than those with saccharin, taste great—and the dental establishment is warming up to them.

The ADA has awarded its seal to Tom"s of Maine, which makes a large variety of natural-ingredient toothpastes. And the Journal of Clinical Dentistry found that Herbal Toothpaste and Gum Therapy from The Natural Dentist outperformed Colgate"s Total in reducing gingivitis and teeth stains. The Natural Dentist makes pastes and gels in a variety of flavors that contain sodium laureth sulfate, but don’t use artificial sweeteners, preservatives or dyes. Peelu Toothpaste, which comes in Spearmint, Cinnamon and Peppermint flavors, uses peelu, a vegetable fiber, as an abrasive and glycerine as a cleanser, rather than a synthetic detergent. Weleda makes toothpaste free of saccharin and sodium lauryl sulfate. Its Pink Toothpaste with Myrrh contains nine essential oils for gum health, and its Children"s Tooth Gel is made especially for young teeth.

For consumers who wish to avoid fluoride, Tom"s of Maine makes fluoride-free natural toothpaste for adults and children. Tom"s also makes a whitening toothpaste that uses silica; Jason Natural Products makes one that uses both silica and bamboo powder.

CONTACTS: Center for Science in the Public Interest, (202) 332-9110, www.cspinet.org; American Dental Association, (312) 440-2500, www.ada.org; Tom"s of Maine, (800) 367-8667, www.tomsofmaine.com; The Natural Dentist, (201) 944-0123, www.thenaturaldentist.com; Peelu Toothpaste, (888) 543-9294, www.bytheplanet.com/Products/Peelu/Peelu.htm; Weleda, (800) 265-2615, www.usa.weleda.com; Jason Natural Products, 877-JASON-01, www.jason-natural.com.

Dear EarthTalk: I"ve heard that human population is actually shrinking because of a global "birth dearth." Is this true?

—Lindsay Ellis, via e-mail

There is indeed a population shortfall trend developing in Western Europe, Russia and Japan. In Ireland, for instance, families have an average of 1.8 children today, slightly below the "replacement level" of two children per couple. Couples in Italy, Germany and Spain have just 1.2 to 1.3 children each. The average fertility rate in Europe is 1.45. Both Russia and Japan are at 1.3.

But it"s simply not true that world population is shrinking, because these trends are overcompensated for by the very rapid population increases taking place in the world"s poor and least-developed countries. According to the United Nations, population growth in less-developed countries is growing at an annual rate of 1.46 percent, nearly six times faster than the .25 percent growth taking place in the most heavily industrialized regions of the world.

We are currently adding 77 million people to the globe annually, with 21 percent of that increase coming from India, 12 percent from China and five percent from Pakistan. Three countries, Bangladesh, Nigeria and the United States each contribute four percent of the world"s annual growth. In the U.S., where the average fertility rate was 2.05 in 2002, population growth is due largely to immigration.

From 6.3 billion people on the planet today, the United Nations projects we will grow to 8.9 billion by the year 2050. Half of that projected increase will occur in just eight countries, seven of them in Africa and Asia. It is interesting to consider that it took all of human history until 1800 for world population to reach its first billion; from there the second billion took only until 1930. Now, just 75 years later, we’ve passed the six billion mark.

Many environmentalists feel that human population growth is the most important environmental issue of all. The sheer number of people added to the planet each year easily erodes the "per capita" gains made by conservation measures. Globally, the population growth-induced accelerated loss of forestland results in a reduced ability for ecosystems to absorb the also-increasing carbon dioxide emissions that exacerbate global warming. Further, the expansion of human activity and associated loss of habitat are the leading causes of the unprecedented extinctions of plant and animal species worldwide.

In the United States, we lose two acres of farmland every minute, according to the American Farmland Trust, and a serious water shortage is developing nationwide, with aquifers once considered inexhaustible now drying up. In poor countries, population growth exacts its toll in the form of abject poverty and chronic food and water scarcity.

CONTACTS: United Nations Population Fund, www.unfpa.org; Population Action International, (202) 557-3400, www.populationaction.org; American Farmland Trust, (202) 331-7300, www.farmland.org; National Audubon Society Population and Habitat Program, (800) 659-2622, www.audubonpopulation.org.