WHAT IS FLUORIDATION AND SHOULD YOU CARE?

by Whit Gibbons

October 17, 2010


I have been asked the following questions about fluoridation of drinking water.

Q: What is fluoride? How and why do they put it in the drinking water in some cities?

A: In 1931, fluorides, compounds of the element fluorine, were reported to prevent cavities. Within 20 years of the discovery, drinking water was being fluoridated by many U.S. communities. One standard method of fluoridation is to have a volumetric feeder system in which fluoride compounds are put into the water on a continuous basis. The amount of fluoride added fluctuates based on the community's water usage, with more fluoride being added during periods of high water use. Typically the state health department regulates how much and at what flow rate fluoridation chemicals are put into the water supply.

Q: How does a city get permission to put chemicals like that into our water?

A: As with many other practices and procedures that affect people in a community, variations can be found among cities and states. In some instances the local citizenry voted, as many as 50 years ago, to have their water fluoridated. Officials elected to city and county councils have also undoubtedly made the decision in other instances. Such a decision can, of course, be overturned, depending on local voting protocols, and the fluoridation process terminated.

Q: Does fluoride put into municipal water supplies really do any good, and is it safe to drink?

A: Some sources say that the fluoridation of drinking waters in cities is an excellent way to reduce cavities in the general populace. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website lists the fluoridation of drinking water as one of "ten great public health achievements" in the United States during the 20th century. According to the CDC, the process of putting fluoride in water began in 1945, and by the beginning of the present century fluoride was being consumed by more than 140 million people. The CDC states that fluoridation is a safe and inexpensive mechanism to prevent tooth decay in all the adults and children of a community. They cite a book, "Dentistry, Dental Practice, and the Community," by Brian A. Burt and Steven A. Eklund indicating that fluoridation has reduced tooth decay by as much as 70 percent in children and decreased tooth loss by more than 50 percent in adults.

On the other side of the issue are those who advocate against the use of fluoride. One book on the topic is "The Case Against Fluoride: How Hazardous Waste Ended Up in Our Drinking Water and the Bad Science and Powerful Politics That Keep It There" by Paul Connett, James Beck, and H. S. Micklem. A review of this book by Ralph Nader, the consumer advocate, political activist, and four-time presidential candidate, said that the "characterizations of science and democracy are the reasons for reading this book. Especially if you and your family are drinking administratively mandated fluoridated water." Another book with a similar bent is called "The Fluoride Deception" by Christopher Bryson. Either of these sounds like they would provide the ammunition for someone searching for the darker side of municipal water fluoridation.

I have not read any of these books, pro or con, and do not know if the facts given and the positions taken are plausible or not. I did ask six ecologists with a background in chemistry, environmental health or biology what they knew about the merits of municipal fluoridation of drinking water. All admitted knowing too little to take a strong position one way or the other.

This is an intriguing topic, and it has generated intense feelings on both sides of the issue. Like the ecologists I spoke with while writing this column, I do not have enough information to take a well-researched position for or against fluoridation of municipal water supplies. But clearly information is available for those who want to do their homework before deciding whether fluoride in the water is a boon or a curse.


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