Is your tap water safe? The UK may soon be adding fluoride to all tap water. On the US Environmental Protection Agency’s database of developmental neurotoxicants, fluoride is listed between arsenic, cadmium, methadone, and thalidomide. So should we really trust this compound or indeed those that say we should?
1940s American had everything: a world war, an atomic bomb; not to mention an off-world sortie at Roswell, New Mexico. It also had Gerald Cox, a biochemist who spent his evenings fluoridating rats.
Gerald first went public in 1939 to propose that America consider adding fluoride to its drinking water supply to help fight tooth decay. Curiously, a year later Alcoa, the third largest aluminum company in the world, began pushing sodium fluoride openly to proposed fluoridation schemes. The fact that Gerald was an employee at the Mellon Institute (which founded and funded Alcoa) and multiple fellows at the Sugar Institute (a trade association composed of cavity-causing companies) went largely unnoticed.
A murky past
Ten years on and the Grand Rapids fluoridation trial led the US Public Health Service to sanction its adoption. This practice was soon exported. In the mid-50s the infamous Hastings-Napier fluoridation trial in New Zealand began and showed adding this compound to tap water caused a dramatic 78 percent reduction in tooth decay. The trial was officially heralded a success, though not by all. One-time advocate, dentist, and historian Dr. John Colquhoun, smelled a rat.
Following a freedom of information request to the NZ Department of Health, John was shocked to find that the trial had instructed participating dentists to change their method for diagnosing tooth decay; a fact not mentioned in the official report. The study also failed to recognize the comparatively low incidence of cavities across the control city of Napier and rest of the country.
The die was cast. The loaded attempt to misrepresent fluoride in the hearts and minds of the public had begun. Today supporters continue to promote fluoride as a ‘supplement’ capable of counteracting tooth decay. The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention call fluoridation one of the top medical achievements of the 20th century. Quite how fluoride does this, advocates argue, is immaterial, because the benefits to society through reductions in dental decay far outweigh health concerns and infringements to individual autonomy.
According to Karin Jacobs, a physics professor at Saarland University in Germany, all forms of fluoride show a strong protective effect against cavities. While fluoride tablets and drinking fluoridated water, particularly in adults, is less effective, since adults’ teeth are already developed, Karin believes that children markedly benefit from this form of medication.
In growing teeth, fluoride ions replace hydrogen ions in tooth enamel, converting hydroxyapatite (HAP), into fluoroapatite (FAP). FAP is far more resistant to acid erosion caused by bacteria. Incorporating fluoride usually lowers the surface energy, so objects don’t adhere.
Ultimately Karin believes the question over whether to fluoridate drinking water is a socio-political one. If everyone practices good oral hygiene, including regular use of fluoridated toothpaste or mouthwash, fluoridation of drinking water should not be necessary. If not, it may be a good solution, especially for children. This alternative fails to wash with some, though, as recent studies have found only possible slight benefits.
Indeed, in poorer communities, food often takes priority over toothpaste and mouthwash. Does this mean that the poorest in society, and by implication the rest of us, waive the right to reject community water fluoridation? After all, it is impossible, short of purchasing expensive domestic filtration units, for individuals to opt out. A point made by Dr. Howard Cohen and Professor David Locker in the Journal of the Canadian Dental Association who consider the practice, in the absence of sufficient evidence regarding the benefits and risks posed as possible immoral.
So is water fluoridation a silver bullet or a lead buckshot?
What is Safe?
Concerns certainly exist over official ‘safe limits’ set for fluoride, which appear to depend more on what language, which appear to depend more on what language or dialect you speak than science. Currently, the UK government limit is set at 1.5mg per liter with 10 percent of the population in receipt of ‘optimally’ fluoridated drinking water. This practice continues despite concerns over fluorosis, a condition characterized by the mottling and structural weakening of tooth enamel due to chronic poisoning by a fluoride compound. When fluoride in drinking water is elevated (far below authorized ‘safe’ limits) from a theoretical low of 0.4 mg per liter to 1 mg per liter, it is said to cause additional fluorosis in one of six people; of which 25 percent will have fluorosis of ‘aesthetic’ concern. That is, their teeth will be brown and mottled.
It’s not just about cosmetic issues, though. Chronic exposure heightens the risk of crippling changes associated with skeletal fluorosis, pain, and damage to bones and joints. Fluoride in drinking water can also stress the pineal and entire glandular system; scientifically proven to affect intelligence, mood and psychological clarity.
Government limits that concentrate on mg per liter don’t take into account how much we drink, which can be markedly different from one person to another. It also suggests that we live in a vacuum; that unregulated over-exposure to fluoride from other environmental sources and from our toothpaste can be ignored.
Industries such as USSteel, DuPPont, Alcoa, Allied Chemical, and the Fluoride phosphate fertilizer industry all profit, opponents say, from markedly fluoride waste by-products they generate as fluoridating agents to water utilities. Were these fluoride by products not sold to water municipalities they would eat into industry profits by tens of millions of US dollars under toxic waste disposal regulations every year.
Ultimately the sensible approach to dental health would be to target the cause of tooth decay, explains Professor Aubrey Sheiham at the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, UCL. Additional fluoride to the currently available in toothpaste does not appear to be benefiting the teeth of the majority of people. The main strategy to reduce the levels of cavities should be reducing sugar intake in our diet.
We all love a cuppa. the average person drinks four mugfuls a day, an amount that’s recently raised concern following research led by Professor Aradhana Mehra at the University of Derby.
The tea tested 38 tea products for fluoride. Infusions of economy black blends that target less affluent consumers registered on average 6mg per liter, or the equivalent of 1.5mg per cup. when compared to the US National Academy of Sciences daily dietary intake of 4mg per day, economy black tea blends accounted for 75-120 percent of the recommended daily fluoride intake. So, fluoridating drinking water to protect the poorest in society could be flawed, as, by tea consumption alone, these communities may far exceed safe levels.
In fact, according to Laura Chan, a Ph.D. student at the University of Derby, there have been cases, in both the UK and USA, of skeletal fluorosis in individuals who drank large quantities of economy tea.
Aradhana and her team offer a strong note of caution. “There should not be a blanket fluoridation of water, irrespective of whether we drink tea or not, “She says, citing mottling of teeth, skeletal and crippling fluorosis as reasons against such a practice. “We should be very cautious especially in the case of children and the elderly.”
How to Cut Down
- Use non-fluoride bottled water for drinking. Not sure if your favorite brand is? Then call the customer helpline.
- Avoid fluoride toothpaste and opt for a natural choice – there are lots available.
- Use non-fluoridated water in cooking and for tea-making, as boiling it actually concentrates the fluoride.
- Contact your MP to protest about fluoride in your water.