The U.S. government today called for lowering the amount of fluoride allowed in drinking water – the first such change in 50 years.
According to the Associated Press, health officials say too much fluoride causes spots on some children’s teeth. As the AP reports, “about 2 out of 5 adolescents have tooth streaking or spottiness because of too much fluoride, a surprising government study found recently. In some extreme cases, teeth can even be pitted by the mineral – though many cases are so mild only dentists notice it.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the condition, known as fluorosis, has become unexpectedly common in children ages 12 through 15 – especially since the 1980s.
Most Americans drink fluoridated water
More than 72 percent of Americans on public systems drink water treated with fluoride the CDC reports. According to government statistics, Maryland is the most fluoridated state, with nearly every resident on a fluoridated water system. In contrast, only about 11 percent of Hawaii residents are on fluoridated water, says the AP.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in concert with the Environmental Protection Agency, proposes to set the recommended fluoride level in drinking water at 0.7 milligrams of water per liter – the low end the current recommended optimal range of 0.7 to 1.2 milligrams per liter. In addition, the EPA will review whether the maximum cutoff of 4 milligrams per liter is too high. The new EPA assessments of fluoride were undertaken in response to findings of the National Academies of Science.
The government’s new recommendation “will help us make sure that people benefit from tooth decay prevention while at the same time avoiding the unwanted health effects from too much fluoride,” said Peter Silva, EPA Assistant Administrator for the Office of Water in a statement put out by HHS.
Fluoride first added to water in 1940s
Fluoride, a mineral that exists naturally in water and soil, was first added to water in the United States in the 1940s to help prevent tooth decay in children 8 years and younger. Scientists discovered about 70 years ago that people who lived in areas where water naturally contained more fluoride also had fewer cavities. But adding fluoride to water systems has been controversial from the get go.
To be sure, Americans have more access to fluoride then they did when the current levels were introduced in 1962. Water drinking habits have changed in recent years, and fluoride has been added to many more products from toothpaste and mouthwash to bottled spring water. But is fluoride necessary for optimal dental health? And what about its effects on health in general?
“One of water fluoridation’s biggest advantages is that it benefits all residents of a community – at home, work, school, or play. And fluoridation’s effectiveness in preventing tooth decay is not limited to children, but extends throughout life, resulting in improved oral health,” HHS Assistant Secretary for Health Dr. Howard Koh, explained in the same HHS statement.
Not everyone agrees the benefits outweigh the risks
“It’s amazing that people have been so convinced that this is an OK thing to do,” Deborah Catrow told the AP. Catow successfully fought a ballot proposal in 2005 that would have added fluoride to drinking water in Springfield, OH. She said that reducing fluoride would be a good start, but she hopes it will be eliminated all together from municipal water supplies.
Voters in Springfield turned down the measure 57 to 43 percent in 2005 according to the AP. They also rejected the idea in the 1970s.
And CNN reports that “the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization whose goal is to protect public health and the environment, says it has been pushing governmental officials to reduce fluoride levels for years.
“We’ve had to wait too long, but the government’s official, belated — and perhaps begrudging — announcement marks its recognition that fluoride policies have been out of step with the science on the tap-water additive’s toxicity to children, and that many American children are at risk from excess fluoride in drinking water and other sources,” Jane Houlihan, senior vice president for research at the Environmental Working Group told CNN.
“Since 2005, EWG has been calling on federal agencies to respond to these findings, which come from National Academy of Sciences and many others, documenting that excess fluoride exposure poses dangers that range from discolored teeth to potential hormone disruption and neurotoxicity. HHS has taken an important first step. Now it’s up to water utilities to respond and for the EPA to lower its high, legal limit on fluoride in drinking water, which is more than five times higher than the new maximum recommended amount.”
Most European water is not fluoridated
Interestingly, the AP reports, “there is no fluoride in most European water supplies. In Britain, only about 10 percent of the population has water with fluoride in it. It’s been a controversial issue there, with critics arguing people shouldn’t be forced to have “medical treatment” forced on them. In recent years, the UK has tried to add fluoride to communities with the worst dental health but there’s still considerable opposition.
Some European nations used to add fluoride to water supplies but have stopped. Some countries add it to salt instead.”
In the meantime, HHS has submitted the new recommendations to the Federal Register for a 30-day public comment period. You can comment at CWFcomments@cdc.gov. HHS is expecting to publish final guidance for community water fluoridation by the spring.
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