It’s always wise to question whether something we all take for granted is actually good for us.
For decades, people have been worried – and sometimes furious – about fluoride in our drinking water. Some people believe it’s slowly rotting our brains and turning us into zombies, while others insist the science says we have nothing to worry about.
If there’s one thing I try to do every day, it’s to remain skeptical of anything I read or hear until I’ve seen the evidence. So today we’re going to exercise our healthy skepticism to figure this fluoride issue out.
It’s time to get to the bottom of why exactly fluoride is added to our water supply, and whether or not we should do something about it.
And don’t worry – I’ve come prepared for the controversy.
Fluoride and Fluoridation
Fluoride is a compound derived from fluorine, the single most reactive element in the periodic table. Fluorine is usually found in rocks – the CDC says that around 95 percent of the fluoride added to our drinking water comes from phosphorite rock.
- Drinking water in fluoridated communities
- Beverages and foods processed with fluoridated water
- Dietary prescription supplements
- Professional dental products
Fluoridation is an effective way to prevent tooth decay, for both children and adults throughout their lives. The CDC lists three major health benefits:
- Fewer and less severe cavities.
- Less need for fillings and tooth extractions.
- Less pain and suffering associated with tooth decay.
Public water supplies contain an average concentration of about 1 part per million (1 ppm) or 1 milligram per liter of fluoride.
The reason fluoride is so effective is because it binds to tooth enamel, which is primarily made up of hydroxylapatite, a crystal composed of calcium, phosphorous, hydrogen, and oxygen. When fluoride replaces the hydroxyl molecule on hydroxylapatite, fluoride strengthens the tooth by making it more resistant to acid and bacteria.
Without fluoridation, we might be far more susceptible to tooth decay. When left untreated, tooth decay can lead to serious health problems like infections that can spread into the jaw. Ever since fluoridation began, tooth decay has declined considerably in the United States.
Even with the increase in fluoride from other sources in our daily lives, fluoridation in the public water supply continues.
The American Dental Association continues to endorse fluoridation as safe and effective. The earliest studies showed that fluoridation reduced the amount of cavities in children by as much as 60 percent, and reduced tooth decay in adults by nearly 35 percent.
Today, studies still show fluoridation reduces tooth decay by 20 to 40 percent, even with widespread availability of fluoride from other sources.
But despite the proven benefits of fluoridation, many still question its use.
The controversy surrounding fluoride is, without a doubt, one of the most serious tug-of-war battles still ongoing in the scientific community.
If you perform a Google search on the word “fluoride,” some of the top results are links to conspiracy theory websites. Some of them even look like they are operated by legitimate medical professionals.
Some actually are.
While tooth decay has declined in the US, it’s also been in decline in countries that do not fluoridate their water supplies, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
This only adds fuel to the fire of controversy swirling around fluoridation. Ever since it was first introduced back in the 1940s and 1950s, fluoridation has drawn criticisms from skeptical groups.
One argument against fluoride is that it is an unethical form of mass-medication. Critics say that fluoridation is an outdated, one-size-fits-all approach to medicine. Instead of testing on an individual basis and recommending fluoride supplements to patients, scientists and public health officials have decided it’s okay to medicate the entire population with the same levels of the same drug.
Each individual who drinks tap water does not have the opportunity to consent – or even be informed of the presence of fluoride in the first place. Some live in areas where there may be more undetected naturally occurring fluoride in the water than in other places, which can cause serious health issues.
Others say that the biggest problem with fluoride is that it is often approved and delivered by individuals to the water supply who have no medical qualifications. They say that these are often public employees who measure amounts and dump the chemical into the water supply, without the oversight of medical experts.
In 2015, the United States Department of Health and Human Services recommended a new optimal level of fluoride in drinking water to prevent tooth decay. The new recommendation is for a single level of 0.7 milligrams of fluoride per liter, slightly reduced from the 1962 recommendation of 0.7 to 1.2 milligrams per liter.
While some people might see this as the government realizing they’d made a mistake and quietly scaling back the amount they deemed acceptable in drinking water, that’s not necessarily the case. The official reason for the change is because most people in the United States have access to more sources of fluoride than they did when the original guidelines were put in place.
Alice Lee, the pediatric dentist at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, New York, had this to say on the subject:
“The adjustment in amount is more representative of the current needs of the population. Due to the increased use and accessibility of other fluoride sources (toothpaste, mouth rinse, etc.) and other improvements in oral health care, these new recommendations have been made.”
As you can see, this is one thorny issue.
Is Fluoride Bad for You?
Okay, so it seems that fluoride is without a doubt beneficial for strengthening our teeth. But what effects might it have on the rest of our bodies?
According to the anti-fluoridation Fluoride Action Network, there are some groups who are at risk when it comes to fluoride exposure:
- Bottle-fed babies
- Individuals with poor kidney function
- Individuals with iodine deficiency
- Individuals with calcium, vitamin C, and/or vitamin D deficiencies
- Individuals who drink large amounts of water
You may be quick to ignore the claims of this website and say they’re the ramblings of conspiracy theorists, but it’s true that fluoride can be harmful to people with weakened immune systems.
Fluoride can also have negative effects on the teeth themselves and the rest of the body when found in higher amounts than is recommended by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
Dental fluorosis is a condition that causes changes in the appearance of tooth enamel. These changes can vary from only slightly noticeable white spots in the enamel to staining and pitting in more severe forms. Dental fluorosis only occurs in younger children who consume too much fluoride, from any source, over long periods of time while teeth are still developing under the gums.
One study by Harvard scientists found that fluoride could potentially lower people’s IQ. Researchers said, “Our results support the possibility of adverse effects of fluoride exposures on children’s neurodevelopment.” The study was published in the July 2012 edition of Environmental Health Perspectives.
Skeletal fluorosis is a crippling bone disease caused by excessive accumulation of fluoride in the bones. It can cause pain and permanent damage to bones and joints. The common causes for over-exposure to fluoride leading to skeletal fluorosis include inhalation of fluoride dust and fumes and drinking water with excessive fluoride content.
According to WHO, millions of people around the world are exposed to excessively high levels of fluoride through drinking water that is contaminated from natural geological sources.
Groundwater can often have multiple times the levels the HHS recommends as safe. The highest natural concentrations of fluoride occur in southern Asia, the Eastern Mediterranean, and Africa, as well as Turkey, the Middle East, and China.
However, the WHO and organizations like the American Medical Association, the British Dental Association, the ADA, and others still support fluoridation at appropriate levels to reduce tooth decay.
Remember what I always say: everything in moderation. It seems particularly appropriate when it comes to fluoride in the water supply.
Everyone wants healthy teeth and gums. That’s why fluoride was added to the water supply in the first place. But yes, in large amounts, fluoride can be seriously dangerous.
But the reaction to that danger should not be to form a mob with torches and pitchforks. How many other things that you eat, drink, or otherwise consume regularly would be deadly in large amounts?
You can definitely have too much of a good thing.
The truth is that the people who support continued fluoridation are medical professionals and scientific experts. We trust their opinions on the vast majority of other issues, and the idea that there’s some organized conspiracy to cause the public harm is silly to me.
After all, we all drink the same water, don’t we?
More than 70 years of research has gone into the subject of fluoridation, and it’s clear that there’s never been strong enough evidence to prove that the levels we consume are harmful. It’s also clear that we have benefited from those levels greatly as seen in our improved dental health.
Still, you should remain skeptical and cautious with all things that concern the health of your body and mind. Fluoride is everywhere, yes, but you can control how much of it you consume:
- Find out the levels of fluoride that occur in your local water supply
- Avoid drinking groundwater or other liquids that have not been confirmed to have safe fluoride levels
- Check your children’s gums and teeth regularly
- Avoid high-fluoride toothpaste unless recommended by a dentist or health professional
- Ask your doctor if any of your medications have high fluoride levels
So, what do you think about fluoridation? Do you trust the experts who say the levels we consume can do us no harm, or will you start seeking out alternative water supplies?