There are many myths surrounding fluoride in drinking water. During the Red Scare, some people thought water fluoridation was some kind of Soviet communist plot. I’m a little fuzzy on what the Soviets would get out of that, but it’s best not to let reason get in the way of a good conspiracy theory.
That’s on the kooky end of the spectrum. Surely nobody still believes that, right?
But there are other, more serious claims. For example, have you heard that fluoride in our drinking water is damaging our health and our intelligence?
Luckily for us, there actually isn’t much to back up these claims. It’s true that exposure to excessive amounts of fluoride can be damaging to your health, but I’d like to put the emphasis on excessive. The Environmental Protection Agency has determined 4.0 mg/L or 4.0 ppm (2.0 ppm for purely cosmetic effects) to be a safe level. But that’s not what’s actually in fluoridated water. The Department of Health and Human Services determined that the optimal level of fluoride in tap water to be about 0.7 to 1.2 mg/L. It’s well within the safety range. Even if you drink fluoridated water and brush your teeth with a toothpaste that contains fluoride, you’re unlikely to to get an excessive dose.
Excessive use of fluoride has been shown to cause dental fluorosis, which causes white speckling or pitting on tooth surfaces, and, like with most things, children are the most at risk. But that doesn’t mean that fluoride is bad and that we should stop putting it in our water. In fact, the vast majority of kids will be fine. You should only be careful if you happen to live in an area that has naturally occurring fluoride in excess of 2.0 ppm.
There has also been concern over an alleged link between fluoridated water and cancer, specifically a rare cancer called osteosarcoma. This link has been studied, and found to be nonexistent.
In the early 1990s, the National Cancer Institute reviewed the literature to see if the link was real. The NCI found that the link just wasn’t there.
The NCI study identified no trends in cancer risk which could be attributed to the introduction of fluoride into drinking water. The study examined nationwide moronity data and incidence data from counties in Iowa and the Seattle, Washington, metropolitan area. There were no consistent differences in the trends in cancer mortality rates among males and females living in counties having initiated relative mortality rates from cancer, including cancer of the bones and joints, were similar after 20-35 years of fluoridation as they were in the years preceding fluoridation. In addition, there was no relationship between the introduction and duration of fluoridation and the patterns of cancer incidence rates, including those of the bone and joint, and the subset of osteosarcomas (Appendix E). For example, there were 91 observed cases of osteosarcoma in the fluoridated areas, when 93 cases were expected based on rates in non-fluoridated areas.
This is great news! At the rate we in the United States are ingesting fluoride, we should be physically fine. But what about mentally? There was a much publicized study in 2012 that news outlets claimed proved that fluoridated drinking water decreased our IQ. There are a couple of things wrong with this.
First is that this is a meta-analysis, so the researchers looked at other studies that have already been done. The studies they looked at came from China, Mongolia and Iran. This may seem trivial at first. After all, people are people, and a physiological effect should be expected whether a person is of Asian, Middle Eastern, Western European, or whatever descent. However, this difference is actually pretty important. The fluoride levels in these areas were as high as 11.5 mg/L. That is 10 times higher than the optimal level used in the United States and more than twice as high as the EPA has deemed safe. So while we’re still dealing with fluoride, it’s really comparing apples and oranges.
Second, we’re actually getting smarter. Since 1900 (which includes the 1940s and 1950s, when fluoridation really started to pick up) Americans have been gaining on average 3 IQ points per decade. It may feel like we’re getting more stupid by the day, but that is in fact not the case. Fluoride and all.
So fluoride, in the quantities we’re using it, is basically harmless. But does it do any good? Yes! It does! The CDC named it one of the 10 greatest public health achievements, along with vaccines, family planning and the recognition of tobacco as a health hazard. Fluoridation is amazing for your oral health. It causes people to have fewer and less severe cavities and suffer less pain associated with tooth decay. It’s cost effective, too. For every dollar invested in fluoridation, it saves $38 in dental costs. So, if you love your teeth, you should love fluoride.
Fluoride is your friend, but it seems that there are a lot of people who don’t want you to realize it. Just last year Portland, Ore., voted to refuse water fluoridation, despite all the evidence that says it’s a safe and effective way to keep your mouth healthy. Kansas recently killed an anti-fluoride bill, but the fact that it came up is disturbing.
Food and drink is a touchy subject. It’s a deeply personal choice to decide what you decide to put in your body. But fluoride is safe and has done a lot throughout the decades to benefit our oral health. It’s time to drop the opposition and make your mouth happy.
Photo Credit: Andy Li via Flickr