RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—On the heels of a new report finding that 89 percent of city tap water supplies tested are contaminated with cancer-causing chromium-6, two government agencies are announcing that there could be too much of something else in your water, as well—in this case, something that they put there on purpose.
On Friday, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) jointly announced that "based on the most up-to-date scientific data," they want to start cutting down on the amount of fluoride that's intentionally added to tap water to prevent cavities and tooth decay, and reduce the amounts that creep into water by way of nature and industrial pollution.
The HHS is proposing that its range of 0.7 to 1.2 milligrams of fluoride per liter of water added to water by municipalities be capped at the low end of that range, 0.7 milligrams per liter. And the EPA, which monitors all fluoride (the stuff that's added, plus the stuff that gets in unintentionally), has said that it will review its current limit of 4.0 milligrams per liter. EPA didn't provide a new proposed limit, but just announced that it may revise its current recommendations.
"This is definitely a difficult issue," says Emily Wurth, water program director at the nonprofit Food and Water Watch. "There's been research that supports the use of water fluoridation for preventing dental cavities, but there is a growing body of research suggesting there are some concerns about its use."
THE DETAILS: Decisions about fluoridating local water supplies are left up to local or state governments, and according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) statistics from 2008 (the most recent data available), 64 percent of Americans drink intentionally fluoridated water. But municipal treatment isn't the only way we're exposed to fluoride. A growing number of personal-care products, pesticides, and other environmental sources are exposing people to more fluoride than they were being exposed to back in the 1940s, when water was first fluoridated. That's why HHS is proposing new lower limits and the EPA is considering reducing its maximum contaminant level for water.
A naturally occurring element, fluoride gets into water by way of eroding soil and rock, and it's a pollutant emitted by aluminum plants, brick factories, and a variety of other industries. There are also fluoridated toothpastes, mouthwashes, and all the treatments at the dentist office that expose us to still more; and then there's fluorine, the chemical element that forms fluoride. It's used in pesticides, nonstick and stain-repellent finishes like Teflon, and in the grease-resistant linings on fast-food wrappers and microwave popcorn bags. We're exposed to these fluorine-based chemicals through food and household dust.
There are clear health problems related to fluorine-based chemicals, including infertility in both men and women, ADHD, thyroid problems, and even high cholesterol. But the science on the safety of fluoride (a salt formed by fluorine) is less definitive, though some public health officials are starting to rethink the conventional wisdom supporting it. In 2006, the EPA commissioned a review of the literature on its safety by the National Research Council, a part of the National Academies of Science, and those researchers concluded that the EPA's current limit of fluoride in drinking water is too high. They found that 10 percent of children who are exposed to levels of fluoride at the EPA's current limit of 4.0 milligrams per liter of water have severe enamel fluorosis, an irreversible condition that results in discoloration, enamel loss, and pitting of the teeth. In their report, the authors called the condition "a toxic effect" that can damage underlying dental tissues, cause bacteria to become trapped in the enamel, and actually increase the risk of cavities—the very problems fluoridated water is supposed to correct.