Health & Medicine

Government rethinks fluoride in drinking water

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Photo of a woman drinking water (Image by Wikimedia user Kristiaan (cc:by))

This story was originally covered by PRI's Living on Earth. For more, listen to the audio above.

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This month marks the 66th anniversary of when Grand Rapids Michigan became the first city in the world to add fluoride to its drinking water. The rate of dental decay dropped significantly among kids born after fluoride was added to the water supply. Today, nearly all toothpastes contain fluoride in high concentrations. And it's added in small doses to two-thirds of public water systems in the United States.

Now, some people wonder whether or not that was a good idea. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently announced that it wants municipalities to cut the amount of fluoride in their water systems by more than 40 percent.

The fluoridation of water is "a very well-studied public health achievement," Dr. Howard Koh, Assistant Secretary for Health at H.H.S., told PRI's Living on Earth. "Cavities have dropped by 30 to 50 percent, oral health has improved, kids go through less pain and suffering from requiring teeth to be removed."

But times have changed. "It used to be that Americans received fluoride from a single source - drinking water," Koh points out. Now people get fluoride from toothpaste, mouth wash and other sources, too. And there are some "unwanted health affects," Koh admits. Though he adds, "these are generally very mild, barely noticeable by health professionals and dental professionals."

Chris Neurath of the Fluoride Action Network disagrees.

Back in 2006, the National Academy of Sciences found that fluoride can weaken bones and increase the risk of fractures. A Chinese study found a link between fluoride and the reduction of IQ. "People who defend fluoride say they're not good enough studies," Neurath says, "but they have not done their own studies."

In fact, the link between fluoride and dental health "is much weaker than the government has said," according to Neurath:

Basically, dentistry and public health said, 'wow, the panacea, a silver bullet against cavities.' And it didn't really matter whether there was ironclad evidence that it was really working or not. Once it got going it had a life of its own, and it has continued.

"There are no definite links between fluoride and any systemic illnesses," according to Koh at H.H.S. At the same time, they want to reduce the amount of fluoride in drinking water to benefit everyone. According to Neurath, who has been fighting against the fluoridation of water for years, "we feel that their current decisions have vindicated what we've been saying all along."

Hosted by Steve Curwood, "Living on Earth" is an award-winning environmental news program that delves into the leading issues affecting the world we inhabit. More about "Living on Earth."