Fluoride: good for your teeth, but should you be drinking it?

photo by Meiying Wu

For decades, fluoride has been accepted as an essential nutrient for oral health. KBIA’s Emil Lippe tells us why some cities are saying “No” to fluoridating their water.

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Health risk of fluoride spark national and global decisions for change


By: DJ Pointer, Emil Lippe, Rachel Thomas and Meiying Wu


Usually when people go to the dentist or a health professional about their teeth, fluoride comes up in conversation as the answer for keeping teeth white and preventing cavities. However, recent studies are challenging this idea.


The concept behind fluoride being a healthy mineral for teeth is starting to shift gears. Cities across the nation are voting to end fluoridation in their water systems because of its potential health risk. Even with health professionals advocating for the use of fluoride in water, state and national governments across the world are making decisions on whether the benefits of fluoride outweigh the negatives.


Let’s look at the city of Alexandria, Indiana.


This city has debated about the fluoridation of its water system for the past 20 years. In April, the city’s residents and council members rejected a proposal to continue adding fluoride to its water.


Dr. David Steele, a city council member and one of the local dentists in Alexandria, said he was shocked at the city’s decision to discontinue the use of fluoride.


“The local county newspaper ran a large column about this. This was one of the worst things that could happen to this community, and the paper even said why don't you pay attention to the professionals who know about fluoride?” Steele said.


Before the city voted to stop using fluoride, Steele said it was beneficial to the city’s water supply considering that the natural level of fluoride in the water is only about 0.2 milligrams per liter. This is below what is recommended.


In 2015, the U.S. Public Health Service announced a national recommendation that drinking water should have 0.7 milligrams per liter of fluoride in water to prevent tooth decay and cavities.


Steele said the city’s water superintendent made a personal decision to not add the fluoride in the water system because he said it was poisonous and would cause problems with the children.


The city council followed with a vote.


Steele said that the city’s decision was heavily influenced by the current mayor’s views on fluoride.


“I guess the most disappointing point is the mayor would be the one that could really call the shots about how we should do things, but the mayor refuses to do that because he does not believe in fluoride,” he said.


Alexandria is not the only city giving its residents a voice in the fluoridation debate.


The city of Healdsburg, California is the only city in its county that fluoridates its water. But residents who have been opposed to adding fluoride are worried about how much fluoride they’re ingesting.


According to the Healdsburg Tribune, anti-fluoridation activist Donna Gallagher-Stroeh said dentists have lied to patients about the safety and effectiveness of fluoride.


In 2014, the residents of Healdsburg who opposed fluoride started a petition of signatures to propose a ballot question in the city’s election. The question called for residents to vote on ending fluoridation in the city.


In 2016, residents revisited the ballot in the November election, but in 2017 it was rejected again by the city’s residents.


Residents are not the only ones making decisions about using fluoride.


In 2006, the National Research Council published a scientific evaluation report entitled, “Fluoride in Drinking Water: A Scientific Review of EPA’s Standards.”


The NRC found that, if fluoride is orally ingested at high levels, it could cause mottled teeth, dental and skeletal fluorosis, and bone fractures.


This led to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency enforcing that a city’s water supply cannot exceed 4.0 milligrams per liter of fluoride in water.


For the most part in the U.S., decisions regarding the fluoridation of city water systems are determined on a local basis.


This is not the case everywhere.


The Fluoride Action Network, a national anti-fluoridation organization, reported that more than 95 percent of western European countries have officially banned fluoride from being used in their water systems.


Stephen Peckham is a professor of health policy at the University of Kent in Canterbury, England. He works within the Centre for Health Services Studies, and he said regulations on fluoride will not solve the problem.


“It's all pretty subjective because you're still talking about levels in water rather than levels ingested, and you know it only takes somebody to drink four more glasses of water a day than you for them to get substantially more fluoride than you might get,” Peckham said.


In recent years, more than 18 other countries have join the movement on banning fluoride. Major countries include China, France, Japan, Germany, and India.