By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Fluoride has been controversial for longer than many of us have been alive. Back in the 1940s and 50s, when scientists introduced the idea of adding fluoride to our water systems to strengthen Americans’ teeth, people fought the effort.

Fluorosis 2

Mottling of the teeth signals that you’ve gotten too much fluoride. Studies suggest fluoride causes a host of other effects that you cannot see.

At the time, the opposition didn’t have much science on their side. They opposed the introduction of fluoride into the water systems of American towns and cities as a violation of citizens’ rights, an action with unknown outcomes and no way to opt out. They lost this battle and in the course of decades of back-and-forth became branded as wild-eyed fanatics for their fierce opposition to something health officials portrayed as sensible and harmless.

The pro-fluoride forces who mobilized city after city to “fluoridate” water sounded reasonable. They wore white coats and argued that dental health was worth it and kids would be better off. There was no real downside, they said.

But history has shown that these public health advocates had only flimsy science on their side. They were acting mainly upon the observation and a few studies showing that people who drank water in areas with naturally occurring fluoridation (from the geology) had stronger teeth. (And they overlooked the areas where the natural fluoride was really high, and kids had mottled brown teeth.)


Fluoride promised big smiles.

They were right about this much: Fluoride strengthens tooth enamel. This concept eventually reached its fullest expression with the addition of fluoride to toothpaste and mouth rinses, which come into direct contact with teeth and harden tooth enamel. The American Dental Association, by the way, is a big proponent of topical fluoride. The Centers for Disease Control endorses both topical fluoride applications and fluoridation.

It’s all  good, right?

Not at all. Today science tells us that even though controlled topical applications of fluoride provide benefits, ingesting fluoride is needless at best, and most likely quite reckless.

Fluoride damages bones and cognition

Studies have shown that high fluoride levels in our bodies may be negatively impacting bones (which even the EPA concedes, though it sounds rather blaise on the matter) and worse, fluoride at high levels affects the cognitive abilities of children.

Notably,studies of Chinese children found that those drinking naturally occurring higher levels of fluoride suffered significant cognitive deficits. One recent one, chronicled the actual drop in IQ points associated with higher fluoride levels. China isn’t waiting for more proof. It doesn’t fluoridate its water.

We here in the US may, in fact, have never needed to drink fluoride. Yet we continue to pay to put it in our water systems because it once promised a health benefit; a benefit we now receive through fluoride applications, toothpaste and rinses. (And even these come with hazards, particularly when small kids eat their toothpaste instead of brushing with it.)

In addition, the fluoride that’s dumped into city water systems is often hydrofluorosilic acid, an unrefined byproduct of the fertilizer industry.

Fluoride comes from phosphate processing plants like this one.

Fluoride comes from phosphate processing plants like this one.

Unbelievable, but true. We’re literally drinking a waste product, solving a problem for the manufacturer who otherwise would have to find another way to safely dispose of it.

So there. I’m a nutcase. I think this is crazy. If you have even an inkling that you agree,  read this article by the Fluoride Action Network and do some independent research. Here’s one place to start, the Waterloo (Canada) Watch website, which has an excellent page on the fertilizer-to-fluoride process.

Many Americans have come to the conclusion that this is…well, messed up. Hundreds of US cities have voted to stop fluoridation. Most European cities never had it, or have stopped. Austin and Portland have groups fighting to stop fluoridation. The Portland City Council recently voted to add fluoride after years of holding out. They’re trending in the wrong direction.

Austin is experiencing a strange clash of ideas over fluoride. The University of Texas mega-campus in the heart of Austin has elected to filter fluoride out, meanwhile, the Austin City Council has shown little interest in stopping fluoridation. Fluoride Free Austin reports that they’ll continue to push the issue, and they’ve posted a funny blog about what council members have told them to help explain why it’s taking so long.

fluorosis, National Health and Nutrition survey 1999-2000

Here’s a chart showing the fluorosis evident in 30 percent of Americans, ages 6 –  39. This Health and Nutrition survey helped persuade HHS we were overdosing on fluoride.

There’s another problem that’s arisen with fluoride about which the public is not well informed.

Awash in fluoride

With fluoridated water being used to irrigate some crops, fluoride is concentrating in certain foods that bind easily with it. It’s turning up in fruit juices that are made with fluoridated water and in the bones of livestock that’s been raised on fluoridated water (because the fluoride ends up in the bones; another Chinese study found increased hip fractures among human populations with higher fluoride levels). It concentrates naturally in tea and a few other foods.

This means the average consumer may be getting far more fluoride than she or he ever bargained for, via food, packaged beverages, tap, bottled water and dental products. And the proof is in the rising incidence of fluorosis in young people.

An alarming jump in fluorosis, the mottling of teeth that signals an overdose of fluoride, prompted the US Health and Human Services Department (HHS) to lower the safe threshold for fluoride from 1.2 milligrams per liter to .07 milligrams per liter in 2011.

So HHS is concerned about the rising level of fluoride all around. The Centers for Disease Control, not so much. They maintain that water fluoridation is still “beneficial for reducing and controlling tooth decay and promoting oral health in children and adults”. In case we don’t brush our toofies — the same hygiene rationale used in the 1950s to promote fluoridation — the CDC’s got our back, or at least a firm grip on 50-year-old arguments.

If you brush your teeth and don’t want to drink excess fluoride, you can take a few steps to reduce your exposure. The Fluoride Action Network has put together 7 Ways to Avoid Fluoride in Foods and Drinks, which we’ve reprinted.

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