Update on Fluoridation

by Kay Neth

This article was originally published in March 2006

(March 2006) — PCC filters water in several areas throughout all stores — in drinking fountains, produce misters, classrooms and deli espresso makers. We’ve done it for years.

We believe our member/owners and cooks prefer it for water quality and taste. Here’s an update on fluoride, a controversial public-water additive — eliminated by filters at PCC.

Adding fluoride to drinking water — a 60-year-old practice meant to ward off tooth decay — still inspires fervent believers, equally fervent opponents and even a little press now and then.

Look at Bellingham, Wash., where fluoridation was a much-contested ballot measure last November. The close election and controversy garnered coverage from Time magazine, National Public Radio and ABC World News. Fluoridation opponents seized the chance to appear reasonable, or at least sane, in talking about fluoride-related health concerns, environmental issues and civil liberties.

(“People think we are tinfoil hatters,” one anti-fluoridation resident told Time, “but we’re just average families who take the time to research and want what’s best for our children.”)

Ballot supporters outspent the opposition nearly 20 to one. But Bellingham nixed fluoridation anyway — as did nine other cities in 2005. Proponents shook their heads and blamed the Internet, where anti-fluoridation sites proliferate.

All of this made 2005 a banner year in publicity for the long-running fluoridation debate — which may gain attention in 2006. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) is slated to release very soon its government-commissioned report on fluoridation safety.

Fluoride may be good for dental health when applied directly on teeth, but it’s also a toxic compound. So how much fluoride is safe to drink in our water? The NAS, a nongovernmental advisory organization of scientists and other professionals, has spent more than three years trying to answer that question. Its findings could impact fluoride levels in public water supplies across the United States.

“Once our report is issued, it’s the academy’s role … to advise the government,” says William Kearney, the NAS director of media relations. “But it will be up to policymakers to act on that advice.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s current standards for fluoride in drinking water reflect two concerns, both substantiated by research: skeletal fluorosis, a bone disease, and dental fluorosis, a pitting and discoloration of permanent teeth that affects children under 9.

If a city adds fluoride to its water supply — as Seattle has since 1968 — it can’t do so in excess of 1.2 milligrams of fluoride per liter of water (1.2mg/L). When fluoride is naturally present in water supplies, it must remain at or less than 4 mg/L, which the EPA deems low enough to prevent bone disease.

At higher concentrations, water supplies are required to undergo defluoridation. And at 2 mg/L, water providers must notify customers about the risk of dental fluorosis.

The NAS last scrutinized these numbers in 1993, when it concluded that they were acceptable as interim levels. But the NAS noted research gaps, particularly in the areas of bone health, cancer and dental fluorosis.

The academy also suggested that future studies calculate the real extent of fluoride consumption, given the compound’s presence in dental products, as well as food and beverages. Think pasta, soft drinks or anything else prepared with fluoridated water — or that’s processed with fluoride-based synthetics:

In 2005, Dow AgroSciences (a subsidiary of Dow Chemical Company) requested that the EPA permit higher concentrations of fluoride in 600 food items. The agency obliged, enabling Dow to better market ProFume, its fluoride-based gas fumigant, used in facilities that process or store food.

Fluoride levels in powdered eggs, for instance, can now reach 900 parts per million — nearly the same concentration found in toothpaste (which we’re told not to swallow).

The new NAS report will attempt to determine whether this proliferation of fluoridated food, combined with fluoridated water, could compromise human health.

Studies published over the last 12 years have indicated that fluoride may adversely affect kidneys, bone health, fractures and joints, gastrointestinal function, the thyroid, the pineal gland and neurological health. Fluoridation supporters, such as the American Dental Association, have discounted these studies as poorly designed or otherwise misleading.

According to Kearney, the NAS at least initially will consider all relevant research, then decide what data is sound enough to underpin its recommendations.

Among the studies the academy has considered is one that caused a stir, and a little Washington Post coverage, in 2005. A Harvard University Ph.D. student concluded that new research data indicated a fluoride-cancer link; a professor said otherwise when he shared those results with the NAS.

Anti-fluoridation groups were quick to note the professor serves as editor of a dental industry newsletter funded by Colgate, a fluoridated-toothpaste manufacturer.

Journalists generally don’t pay attention to 60-year-old controversies, but they may again cover fluoridation when the NAS releases its findings. Stay tuned. You’ll be able to read the NAS’ final report on its Web site at www.nas.edu.

Also in this issue