Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last five decades, you’re probably aware of the debate over the necessity and, more importantly, the safety of force-feeding the population with fluoride. Public water fluoridation, which began in 1945 in the U.S., was inspired by population studies involving children who lived in an area where the groundwater contained naturally-occuring fluoride compounds. The observation that these children experienced a lower incidence of tooth decay than other populations eventually led to inclusion of fluoride in public water systems. Today, more than 60 percent of the U.S. population and nearly six percent of people across the globe drink fluoridated water.
Fluoride Fast Facts
For a common mineral, fluoride is pretty extraordinary. It’s the reduced form of fluorine, a halogen (non-metal) element designated atomic number 9. Oddly, fluorine doesn’t exist on Earth as a free element, but is literally the stuff of stars, nebula and other interstellar matter floating around in the cosmos. Closer to home, fluoride electrons are social particle butterflies, eagerly flocking to form compounds with any other element that is found on Earth, with the exception of neon and helium.
If the water that comes out of your tap comes from a municipal water supply, it likely contains fluoride in the range that the World Health Organization (WHO) deems acceptable, which is 0.5 to 1.0 mg/L (milligrams per liter). However, fluoride occurs naturally in groundwater, so if you have a well it may contain anywhere from 0.01 to 0.3 ppm (parts per million) of this mineral.
One of three fluoride compounds is added to drinking water: sodium fluoride, fluorosilicic acid or sodium fluorosilicate. Sodium fluoride was the additive of choice in the early days, but was ironically found to readily cause fluorosis, a condition that discolors enamel in the developing teeth of children. Although this substance has several beneficial applications in medicine, it’s considered toxic if ingested in high doses. In addition to reducing heart function and blood circulation, it becomes lethal to human adults at doses of 5 to 10g. At one time, sodium fluoride was an ingredient in rat poison. Today, it’s added to toothpaste. (Go ahead and check; we’ll wait.)
Fluoridated drinking water, however, is more likely to contain fluorosilicic acid, an inexpensive by-product of phosphate fertilizer production also known as hydrofluorosilicic acid and hexafluorosilicic acid.
What’s All the Fuss About Fluoride?
There are probably just as many reasons to support the fluoridation of water as there are against it, which is what makes this topic a debate of tooth-gnashing proportion for the last 50 years. Actually, “50” seems to be a number of significance in the argument. According to the American Dental Hygienists’ Association, the first community to receive fluoridated water was Grand Rapids, Michigan – 50 years ago. Today, about 43 of the 50 largest cities in the U.S. have fluoridated water. Historically, the association claims, adding fluoride to public water supplies has reduced tooth decay in the U.S. by 50 percent since World War II.
But, wait. Paul Connett, Ph.D., Professor of Chemistry at St. Lawrence University, compiled a paper titled, “50 Reasons to Oppose Fluoridation.” Among them, Dr. Connett points to the fact that most Western European countries demonstrate the same decline in tooth decay as Americans, but without fluoridation. In fact, government officials representing a dozen European countries have issued statements that openly condemn fluoridation of public drinking water, with France, Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg and the Czech Republic citing the ethical implications of forced medication. Furthermore, in countries where fluoridation was once practiced but later discontinued (Canada, Finland, Cuba, etc.,), the incidence of tooth decay still decreased, while there have been reports of “dental crises” in U.S. cities fluorinated for decades, namely New York City, Cincinnati and Boston. Finally, even though American physicians have prescribed fluoride supplements for 50 years (here’s that “50” thing again) the Food and Drug Administration has never approved any oral fluoride preparation as safe or effective.
The Bottom Line
Confused? The amount of information out there -and potential disinformation- is staggering. But, here’s what you should take away with you from reading this article: What the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) once called “one of the 10 great public-health achievements of the 20th century,” the agency now acknowledges as possessing a mechanism of action that is topical and not systemic. In other words, tossing back a glass of fluorinated water is not going to protect your teeth, but might expose you to potential health risks from swallowing fluoride. In fact, the National Center for Health Statistics recently reported that dental fluorosis is evident in 41% of 12 to15 year-olds as the result of water fluoridation and the ingestion of fluoride from other sources, like toothpaste.
According to Dr. Connett, only 50 percent of the fluoride you ingest each day is passed out through urine; the rest accumulates in tissue and bone. Over time, accumulated fluoride interferes with enzymatic activity in the body involved in DNA repair, hormone function and neurochemical signaling. In addition, studies have shown that rats given fluoridated water had an increase in aluminum uptake in the brain and developed beta amyloid deposits, events associated with Alzheimer’s disease. A study published in the Feb. 28, 2011 issue of the Journal of Hazardous Materials reported that children exposed to even low levels of fluoride in drinking water showed a 0.59-point decrease in IQ for every 1 mg/L increase in urine fluoride, clearly demonstrating a dose-dependent response. In short, the more fluoride absorbed by the body, the more intelligence declined.
Give Fluoride the Brush Off
Brushing your teeth with fluoride toothpaste does, in fact, help to prevent and even reverse tooth decay. It neutralizes the acids produced by oral bacteria that would otherwise destroy tooth enamel, an action that also enables teeth to re-mineralize and repair existing damage. In this case, fluoride is not detrimental to your health because the topical application of this mineral doesn’t invite toxicity. But, it’s a foregone conclusion that toothpaste is not meant to be ingested since the tube carries a warning label that reads “Harmful if swallowed.” Therefore, always supervise young children when they brush their teeth — and teach them this is one occasion that it’s okay to spit.
If you’re concerned about fluoride in your drinking water, first find out if there is any. The CDC maintains the “My Water’s Fluoride” database (see Resources). Just enter your location and you’ll find out exactly how much fluoride is in your water, if any. If the results set your teeth on edge, consider installing a water filtration system in your home. Even a simple filter for your kitchen sink faucet can help to reduce or eliminate fluoride from your water.
One More Thing…
Eating organic foods could help to reduce the amount of total fluoride compounds in your life. One particular compound, sulfuryl fluoride, is used as an industrial fumigant and pesticide in buildings that house cereal grains, nuts, coffee and other foods. Sulfuryl fluoride degrades into fluoride shortly after application, although the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that this compound accounts for less than three percent of your total fluoride exposure. Still, selecting organic foods eliminates this risk and offers other benefits, like providing adequate nutrition to keep teeth and gums healthy and reducing your exposure to pesticides.
It’s also worth noting that sulfuryl fluoride replaces methyl bromide under international treaty (the Montreal Protocol) because the latter promotes ozone depletion. Although the EPA intends to phase out the use of sulfuryl fluoride within a few years, the agency recently filed a Proposed Order Granting Objections to Tolerances and Denying Request for a Stay regarding tolerances established for sulfuryl fluoride and fluoride in 2004. In the Proposed Order, which invited public comment until April 19, 2011, the EPA agreed with objections filed by the Fluoride Action Network, Beyond Pesticides/National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides and the Environmental Working Group. The Stay Request reflects the EPA’s position that the immediate withdrawal of sulfuryl fluoride will have negative economic impact and environmental consequences if methyl bromide use is reinstated. The agency does, however, agree with the objections raised by these public interest groups and concedes that total fluoride exposure in certain populations exceeds safety standards.
Time Magazine: Health: Not in My Water Supply; Margot Roosevelt/Bellingham; Oct. 2005 http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1118379,00.html
Journal of Public Health Dentistry: A Half-century of Community Water Fluoridation in the United States: Review and Commentary; Ripa LW; 1993 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8474047
BMJ: Adding Fluoride to Water Supplies; Cheng KK et al.; Oct. 2007 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17916854
Nature: A Stable Argon Compound; Khriachtchev L et al.; Aug. 2004 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10972285
WHO: Report from the WHO Expert Committee on Oral Health Status and Fluoride Use; 1994 http://whqlibdoc.who.int/trs/WHO_TRS_846.pdf
International Programme on Chemical Safety (IPCS): Fluorides – Environmental Health Criteria 227, page 38; 2008 (Accessed May 2011) http://www.inchem.org/documents/ehc/ehc/ehc227.htm#5.0
MSDS: Sodium Fluoride http://www.jtbaker.com/msds/englishhtml/S3722.htm
EPA: Questions and Answers about EPA’s Sulfuryl Fluoride Actions http://www.epa.gov/pesticides/sulfuryl-fluoride/questions.html
Regulations.gov: Order Granting Objections to Tolerances and Denying Request for a Stay: Sulfuryl Fluoride http://www.regulations.gov/#!documentDetail;D=EPA-HQ-OPP-2005-0174-0113
American Dental Hygienists’ Association: Fluoride Facts http://www.adha.org/oralhealth/fluoride_facts.htm
Fluoride Action Network: 50 Reasons to Oppose Fluoridation; Paul Connett, Ph.D.; Updated April 12, 2004 http://www.fluoridealert.org/50-reasons.htm
Journal of Hazardous Materials: The Relationships Between Low Levels of Urine Fluoride on Children’s Intelligence, Dental Fluorosis in Endemic Fluorosis Areas in Hulunbuir, Inner Mongolia, China; Ding Y et al.; Feb. 2011 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21237562