Mom probably urged you to brush your teeth and drink plenty of water. But could those habits be dangerous?
Some people say yes. For years, critics have suggested that fluoride — found naturally in the environment, but also added to toothpaste and to the drinking water of many communities — might be responsible for a host of health problems.
Dentists and other health experts say fluoride is safe, and that it makes the surface of teeth more resistant to the acid attacks that cause tooth decay.
But critics say fluoride is dangerous, and may cause or exacerbate:
- Bone fractures
- Brain effects
- Cardiovascular disease
- Endocrine disruption
- Kidney disease
- Male fertility problems
- Thyroid disease
Scientists have investigated such charges, and some have echoed concerns about fluoride’s safety.
In 2012, researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health in Cambridge, Massachusetts and China Medical University in Shenyang, found “strong indications that fluoride may adversely affect cognitive development in children,” according to a Harvard news release.
Earlier this year, researchers at the University of Kent in Canterbury, England, announced that they had found a link between the amount of fluoride in public drinking water and a corresponding rise in the incidence of underactive thyroid.
Carol Kopf is media director of the Fluoride Action Network, an organization that tries to educate the public about potential health dangers associated with fluoride.
She notes that it is very difficult to avoid exposure to fluoride today. Charcoal filters do not remove fluoride, and fluoride also is inhaled in showers and absorbed in baths, she says.
“Fluoride is in virtually all foods and beverages sold in restaurants and supermarkets, because fluoridated water is used in processing,” she says.
The case in favor of fluoride
But fluoride also has many champions. Many scientific studies suggest that fluoride is safe, and that it offers a substantial benefit to protecting teeth.
Some of these studies have reached conclusions that contradict the findings of critics. For example, a 2014 study released by the University of Otago in New Zealand concluded that fluoridated water does not impact IQ. That conflicts with the Harvard findings of two years earlier.
Many governmental and medical organizations also remain firmly convinced of the value of fluoride. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cites water fluoridation as one of the 10 great public health achievements of the 20th century.
The CDC says fluoride’s safety was underscored by a 2013 review of existing research by the Community Preventive Services Task Force.
This independent panel of public health experts concluded that the available evidence “does not demonstrate that community water fluoridation results in any unwanted health effect other than dental fluorosis,” or white spots on the teeth.
Other organizations that promote the use of fluoride and insist that it is safe when used in recommended doses include:
- American Dental Association
- American Medical Association
- Environmental Protection Agency
- World Health Organization
- National Research Council
What should you do?
Chances are good that you drink fluoridated water. As of 2002, more than two-thirds of Americans – about 170 million people – were served by systems that add fluoride to drinking water, according to the ADA.
Dr. Howard Pollick, a dentist and ADA spokesperson, says such fluoridation provides invaluable benefits for teeth in both children and adults.
Before a child’s tooth even breaks through the gums, fluoride taken in from foods, beverages and dietary supplements strengthens tooth enamel, making it easier for the tooth to resist decay, he says.
Once the tooth appears, fluoride helps rebuild weakened tooth enamel and reverses early signs of decay. Water fluoridation enhances this protective process, Pollick says.
“Community water fluoridation is like drinking milk fortified with vitamin D,” he says. “Before water fluoridation, children had about three times as many cavities.”
Pollick says more than 70 years of scientific research has consistently shown that the right level of fluoride in community water is safe and effective.
But Kopf disagrees. “We don’t understand why these agencies aren’t doing their due diligence and following the scientific literature,” she says.
Kopf urges people who are concerned about fluoride to get active and pressure their legislators to make changes.
“If every community rose up against fluoridation, we would all greatly diminish our fluoride exposure with little effort or expense,” she says. “This is one chemical that is easy to remove from the environment. It just takes a flip of a switch and the political will to force it to happen.”