THE PAST FEW months have seen a flurry of discussion regarding the continuing low level fluoridation of our public water supplies in the media and elsewhere, while at least one anti-fluoride campaign has been established.
From the standpoint of a scientific background, it seems quite bizarre to me, to say the least, that there would be such a vitriolic overreaction to what is literally about one part per million of fluoride in our water.
Surely, such a small amount of fluoride present in our water must be relatively innocuous? After all, the vast majority of us are brushing our teeth twice a day with fluoride toothpaste which typically contains over a thousand times as much of the stuff as tap water does, so what’s the big deal?
The purpose of water fluoridation
Water fluoridation was first introduced in Ireland in the 1960s as a dental health measure, since multiple studies had shown that low level fluoride intake was highly effective in preventing the formation of tooth caries by interfering with tooth decay demineralisation processes.
Many other countries continue to fluoridate their water supplies, such as the US, Brazil and Australia, among others. This was introduced at a time when this was a significant public health issue, and represented a cheap way to deal with a widespread problem in the industrialised world, especially among the poor.
No reliable studies
The thing is there are no longer any public health reasons to continue water fluoridation, since it has been entirely negated by the modern day prevalence of fluoride toothpaste, which accounts for a more than adequate supply of fluoride for this purpose. In some cases, other public fluoridation initiatives have been put in place, such as the widespread fluoridation of table salt in Germany and Switzerland.
So, how about the health effects of such low level fluoride intake? The main thing to know here is that to date, no major reputable studies have shown conclusive evidence for any side effects of such low level fluoride exposure other than the purely cosmetic risk of dental fluorosis, which amounts to a mild and benign discolouration of teeth and is of little consequence.
A major review undertaken at the University of York was published in the British Medical Journal in 2000, with the goal of reviewing all literature on the topic to date. Its conclusion highlighted the following points:
- A lack of good quality literature on fluoridation in general;
- A general consensus that water fluoridation is effective at reducing dental cavities, albeit at the expense of dental fluorosis;
- No association was found between low level fluoride exposure and any adverse effects such as cancers, bone fractures or Down’s syndrome.
This shows up many of the baseless claims made by the anti-fluoride lobby to be needlessly sensationalised at best, and highly misleading at worst. Moreover, our fluoride exposure pales massively in significance when compared to our general exposure to huge amounts of various toxins in day to day life, such as car exhausts, general pollution and second hand (or first hand) smoke, which have actually been proven to be detrimental to our health and represent something that we should be altogether more worried about than the fluoride issue.
Such unfounded hysteria over the comparatively harmless (although admittedly controversial) issue of fluoridated water looks like exactly that – hysteria
There is no need for water fluoridation in Ireland today
At this point, I’d like to emphasise that there is no need whatsoever for water fluoridation to continue in Ireland. Many other European countries have already ceased this practice.
However, objection to the continued fluoridation of water must really focus on the needlessness of such an endeavour and the waste of money that it represents, not on some extremely dubious links to potential human health risks; such a stance represents little more than tinfoil hat conspiracy nut scaremongering and is not founded in any solid evidence.
The real issue here is the ethical question which hangs over the addition of any non-essential substances to public water supplies which, at the end of the day, is exactly what water fluoridation has now become – and represents an altogether more reasonable argument for stopping it.
Craig Connolly is a Chemistry Postgraduate Researcher at University College Dublin.