The Fluoride Factor

Kelly Hearn | Conscious Choice

It’s everywhere and here’s why limiting your kids’ exposure makes good health sense.

For five decades, fluoride has been pitched as insurance against mottled teeth, a prerequisite for a healthy smile, a trophy for modern preventive medicine. But as the chemical has been added to drinking water and ingested by millions of Americans each day, scientists and activists are warning that both adults — and kids in particular — are getting far too much fluoride, translating to potentially severe health problems.

Mainstream medical associations, corporations and the U.S. government have invested money and reputation trumpeting the benefits of water fluoridation programs, saying community water fluoridation is an equitable, cost-effective way to prevent dental cavities, especially for poor children. Opponents say spiked water supplies combined with a sea of fluoride-containing products like toothpastes, gels and rinses are delivering large and harmful exposures — and kids are getting the brunt of it.

J. William Hirzy, a fluoride expert and chemist in residence at the American University in Washington, D.C., is one in a list of established scientists who oppose community fluoridation programs. Hirzy is disturbed that fluoride is added to municipal drinking water supplies at a level far greater than what nature delivers. “Human breast milk has about 1/100th the level of fluoride that so-called optimally fluoridated water has,” says Hirzy. “If Mother Nature had intended for human beings to get fluoride at that level, the human breast would have accommodated [it].”

This is where the effectiveness of fluoride in preventing cavities clashes with numerous health concerns about ingestion of the chemical. It’s generally accepted that limited amounts of fluoride prevent cavities but few realize the potential dangers that lurk with overexposure — or, as some call it, toxicity.

“It is now the consensus view of the dental research community that fluoride’s primary benefit to teeth comes from topical application to the exterior of teeth, not from ingestion through the water supply,” says Michael Connett, project director of the Fluoride Action Network, a Burlington, Vermont-based watchdog group. “Since … the risks are primarily from ingestion … adding fluoride to the nation’s water — and thereby to the bulk of the nation’s processed food — is not a good way of minimizing ingestion of fluoride.”

Hardest on the Kids

There are growing worries about fluoride’s effect on children’s behavior and other neurological functions. A 1995 study conducted by a leading neurotoxicologist, Phyllis Mullenix, Ph.D., and published in the journal Neurotoxicology and Teratology showed that baby rats — depending on when they were exposed to fluoride dosages similar to what human children receive — exhibited hyper- and hypo-activity. Some scientists believe this could be a link to the widespread problem of hyperactivity in many kids.

Mullenix, who formerly conducted research at Harvard’s Children’s Hospital, reported impacts on the central nervous system that flagged fluoride as having the potential to cause motor dysfunction, IQ deficits and/or learning disabilities in humans. Moreover, her work found traces of fluoride in the animals’ brains, which also contradicted the widely held assumption that fluoride does not cross the blood-brain barrier. Her findings upset the toothpaste industry and fluoridation supporters, she says, and eventually cost her her job at Forsyth Dental Center, which historically supported systematic fluoridation.

Fluoride toxicity is also fingered as a cause of thyroid dysfunction, especially that of underactive thyroid, termed hypothyroidism, a widespread medical condition that can cause fatigue, weight gain, cramps and a slow heart rate. In the mid-1900s minute doses of fluoride were used to correct overactive thyroid function. This has not escaped the observation of Hirzy, the chemist, who says the amount of fluoride most of us are exposed to in drinking water, processed foods and dental products is far beyond doses used to suppress an overactive thyroid. He theorizes that currently accepted fluoridation levels in water systems could slow thyroid functioning, leading to hypothyroidism.

Clearly, health issues linked to fluoride toxicity and the science behind it are controversial. But less disputed is the fact that fluoride overexposure, from water and personal care products, causes dental fluorosis — the mottling of teeth. The Journal of Public Health Dentistry (2002) found that dental fluorosis has increased in the U.S. and Canada over the last three decades in communities with and without fluoridated water.

In two other studies published in 1999, the same Public Health Dentistry journal noted that some children exceed the total daily fluoride ingestion simply by using toothpaste alone. (Age and body weight dictate an appropriate amount of fluoride needed to prevent cavities — see info box). In the second study, it found that more than 50 percent of infants are currently formula fed by one month of age, and, because of fluoride in the formula, they “are likely to be continuously exposed to high intakes of it for 9 or 10 months …”

Other research points to specific food products increasing risk of fluorosis. The Journal of the American Dental Association (1996) presented data suggesting that young children who drink substantial quantities of juice “possibly should not receive dietary fluoride supplements, since they might be at increased risk of developing dental fluorosis.” Another of its articles (1997) found high-fluoride-content chicken in infant food.

Yet other research, a 2001 study by Oregon State University, showed that foods made with mechanically separated chicken contribute to fluoride intake, reporting that infant foods had the highest amounts of fluoride, followed by packaged chicken sticks, luncheon and canned meats. The study’s authors concluded “a single serving of chicken sticks alone provides roughly half of a child’s upper limit of safety for fluoride.” This is because fluoride gets stored in animals’ bones and teeth, and some industrial deboning methods can leave residual pieces of both in the food.

Additionally, ingesting fluoride happens in a variety of other ways. Many pesticides sprayed on vegetables contain fluoride; sodas are made with fluoridated water. Tea leaves accumulate fluoride from water and soil.

Connett, of the Fluoride Action Network, and other activists point to the fact that countries in Western Europe which do not fluoridate water have shown the same decline in tooth decay as the U.S. and currently have the same low levels of childhood tooth decay. The fact that Europeans can independently choose their fluoride exposure — by using products such as fluoridated toothpaste (or not) makes activists like Connett wonder aloud, “If Europe can do the job with individual fluoride products, then why can’t we do the same here?”

Most people are surprised to learn that the chemicals used to fluoridate water — hexafluorosilicic acid and its sodium salt — are actually waste materials taken from pollution scrubbers used in the phosphate fertilizer industry. Fluoridation critics allege that corporate coziness with government has turned North America’s public water systems into toxic dumping grounds for industrial pollutants. Investigative journalist Christopher Bryson, author of The Fluoride Deception, documents how fluoridation of water is linked to multiple layers of conspiracies and fraud within the military-industrial complex. Hence, the political will to mirror Europe may grow as anti-fluoridation opponents spread information. In fact, more than 60 U.S. communities have rejected water fluoridation since 1999.

Kelly Hearn is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. and Buenos Aires, Argentina.

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