Artificial fluoridation of water supply started in 1945. The distinction of being the first city in the world to spearhead this revolutionary measure to fight dental decay belongs to Grand Rapids, Michigan. Canada introduced fluoridation in the same year in Ontario, but took several more years to make it a national policy. Europe’s response was lukewarm, but many other countries followed the American model. Credited with significant reduction in the incidence of dental cavities, fluoridation has been hailed as “one of 10 great public health achievements of the 20th century” by the Center for Disease Control.
There have always been misgivings about artificially fluoridating water supply, but such concerns were brushed aside with the reasoning that fluoride is a natural constituent of water. But now, after more than half a century of consuming chemical-laced water, people all over the world are up in arms against fluoridation. A CDC study in 2010 finding dental fluorosis in more than 40 percent of children aged 12 to 15 years across US has added fuel to the outcry against fluoridation.
Fluorosis to Fluoridation
The origin of water fluoridation is an interesting case of reverse engineering. It all started in 1901 when a young dentist, Dr. Frederick McKay, found widespread discoloration and pitting of teeth in the residents of Colorado Springs. On conducting further studies he identified drinking water to be the cause of this condition now termed as dental fluorosis. However, it was nearly 30 years later that a chemist of the aluminum making company ALCOA, H.V. Churchill, finally identified fluoride as the culprit.
Those who were affected by dental fluorosis incidentally had few dental cavities — a coincidence reported by Dr. McKay that greatly interested Dr. H. Trendley Dean from the Public Health Service. He found 1 ppm (parts per million) to be the threshold level of fluoride in water that would afford cavity-protecting effect without causing visible signs of fluorosis. But it was Gerald J. Cox, another chemist from ALCOA, that suggested spiking water with fluoride to combat cavities after conducting experiments in laboratory rats. He had just hit upon a way to dispose of the fluoride waste generated in the aluminum industry!
Does water naturally contain fluoride?
Surface water contains negligible amounts of fluoride, with the highest level being 1.3 ppm in seawater. However, fluoride levels in the ground water in different areas of the world can be significantly higher. Many countries like China and India have dangerously high levels of the chemical, which causes not only dental fluorosis, but a severely debilitating and progressive condition called skeletal fluorosis, too. The fluoride gets into the water from the rocks that contain high amounts of fluoride compounds.
The chemicals used for artificial fluoridation of water are not the ones occurring naturally in water, however. In the United States, crystals of sodium fluoride or sodium fluorosilicate are usually used or the liquid fluorosilicic acid is added to the water to bring the fluoride content to the prescribed level of 1 ppm. These chemical byproducts of fertilizer industries are often imported in bulk from China. They typically contain other industrial contaminants, too. Increasing health concerns have further reduced the permissible levels of fluoride in water, but fluoridation is still continuing in many parts of the country. Repurposing of waste may be a great concept, but at what risk?
So, why is artificial fluoridation is unethical and unhealthy? Here are five reasons:
1. There is no evidence that fluoride is essential to human health. To counteract iodine deficiency, which results in the disease goiter, iodine supplementation is practiced in areas with high incidence. While fluorosis caused by the excess of this chemical is prevalent in many areas of the world, there is no such thing as fluorine deficiency. Then what is the medical justification for treating a non-existent condition by mandatory supplementation?
2. People have no choice over their water supply. Water is an essential part of our diet. Many foods and beverages are often fortified with iron, calcium and other essential vitamins important for our overall health. However, in the case of fortified foods, people can choose not to buy that particular product. While they can avoid beverages like tea that typically contains high concentrations of fluoride, there is no escape from this chemical when it is in their drinking water. Water supply artificially laced with fluoride is like pouring unwanted chemicals down their throat. Even vaccination against deadly diseases, though highly recommended by the health department, is still a matter of choice. But how can fluoridation, on the pretext of preventing dental cavities, be a unilateral policy, without the concurrence and informed consent of people?
3. It’s impossible to keep the amount of fluoride consumption within range. Since fluoride is not fully excreted, it can accumulate in the body over time, causing a chemical overload. People who typically consume large quantities of water and other water-based beverages would be at greater risk. For example, athletes generally drink lots of fluids to compensate for water loss during work outs, and people with medical conditions like diabetes and kidney stones are advised to drink plenty of water.
Infants fed on formula milk reconstituted with water from domestic supply inadvertently consume more fluoride than their breast-fed counterparts as breast milk contains very low amounts of this chemical. The very fact that breast milk is low in fluoride precludes any health benefit the chemical is supposed to have. While fluoride toothpastes carry warnings against using it with young children because of the risk of accidental ingestion, how many parents are sensitized to the risk of mixing infant formula with fluoridated water?
4. The side effects of long-term consumption of fluoride has not been studied. The crippling effects of fluoride over the threshold limit of 1-1.5 ppm are well known because many countries have this problem. But, how slow poisoning by water with lower levels of fluoride would affect the health of people is far from clear. Osteoporosis, arthritis and even cancer are cited as possible outcomes, but not with enough supporting data. Nevertheless, the line between the beneficial and detrimental levels of fluoride being so fine, there is room for legitimate concern regarding the safety of long-term use.
5. Defluoridation of water is costly. Boiling the water or using ordinary water filters cannot get rid of fluoride from fluorinated water. Only specialized filters armed with reverse osmosis technology can remove the chemical. In the absence of RO filter, people would have to buy non-fluoridated bottled water.
Alternative to fluoridation
Deficiency of fluoride has never been a proven reason for dental cavities. As we have seen earlier, it’s the mere observation that fluorosis-affected teeth has more resistance to cavities that led to the promotion of this chemical as a preventive measure. But subsequent studies have shown that topical application of fluoride by using fluoridated toothpastes and mouth rinses are more effective than oral intake.
Brushing the teeth after meals and avoiding sugary snacks too go a long way in preventing cavities. In fact, contrary to expectations, countries who did away with fluoridation did not witness any spike in the incidence of dental caries!
As more people become aware of the potential ill-effects of artificial fluoridation of drinking water, there is a definite increase in mistrust. Flights of fancy have given rise to many conspiracy theories including the hand of external governments using fluoridation as a slow chemical weapon to weaken the country’s citizenry. But, it is not hard to see that the rot is from within. Even after big cites in many countries, including Canada, reversed their fluoridation policy, vested interests in the US still attempt to resist a similar course of action. It’s frustrating how such blatant violation of people’s rights is still possible in a democratic country.