Flouride and Portland kids: news and analysis
Portland water has never been fluoridated, so most of the public concern about fluoride ingestion for kids in our city is imported from other hometowns (though we've had some past discussions about fluoride, here, here and here). I've done a little research on the topic in the past few years, helped by my dentist (an urbanMama reader who encourages even the most militant green among us to use fluoridated toothpaste because it's helpful when applied topically) and a great book, The Case Against Fluoride: How Hazardous Waste Ended Up in Our Drinking Water and the Bad Science and Powerful Politics That Kept It There. (phew.) So when I heard the news on NPR last week that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Environmental Protection Agency were working together to lower the maximum recommended level of fluoride in water -- to 0.7 mg per liter from its current maximum, 1.2 mg/L -- my first thought was that it wouldn't affect us, much.
Then I started reading through the articles in greater detail, compared with the information in the book I have now on my lap, and found some interesting leaps to conclusion and some great shifts from unexpected sources. For instance, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has long been the leading proponent of municipal water fluoridation, arguing that the benefit of preventing tooth decay overrode the risk of toxic effects -- and according to all government sources to date, the biggest risk is fluoridosis, or discoloration, streaks and spots on your tooth enamel. The NPR story begins: "Fluoride is a finicky friend to teeth. Too little of it, and you get cavities. Too much, and it starts to eat away and discolor the enamel of your pearly whites, " and quotes a dentist with the American Association of Pediatric Dentistry as saying, "There's a cosmetic risk, not a health risk."
There are a number of problems with these statements.
The assertion that fluoride in and of itself is necessary to prevent cavities is another fallacy; eliminating sugar and highly-processed grains would also prevent cavities. (The book points to U.S. sugar company's interests in fluoridating the water as a substitute for telling Americans that cavity reduction could be achieved through eating less sugar.)
In addition, there is no evidence that the fluoride already present in toothpaste and mouth rinses isn't enough. Paradoxically, very young children were until 2008 given oral fluoride tablets because it was thought that swallowing toothpaste, and ingesting that fluoride, would be harmful (now nearly every toothpaste on the market, including the "natural" sorts like Tom's of Maine, contains fluoride, except those marketed for toddlers). Want more? Fluoride sources include foods and beveraged processed with fluoridated water (which could be many of the foods and beverages available in our grocery stores and restaurants here), mechanically deboned meat (think nuggets), tea (because water in India and China is naturally high in fluoride), wine and pesticide residues on food.
Speaking of pesticide residues on food. This afternoon comes news that the EPA is proposing phasing out a pesticide often used on cocoa beans and dried fruit that degrades to fluoride (and is often blamed for Florida's very high rate of dental fluoridosis). The agency also indicates the high fluoride levels could contribute to excess exposure and posed "an excess risk of tooth and bone damage." In my opinion, this is a major reversal of position that could eventually lead to the removal of fluoride from water nationwide.
And how does this affect us? Well, it's a lot of data points but it points to some interesting new reasons to eat organic foods (there are lots more pesticides out there, after all, and this phaseout will be slow); to eat extremely local (so you can avoid food processed with fluoridated water); to eat whole foods and humanely raised and hand-butchered meat; and to avoid bottled water (because much of it comes from municipal sources which may have been fluoridated). In addition, my decision for my family's dental health is to avoid all ingested sources of fluoride (when possible, I'll keep drinking tea); to continue to work to reduce sugar; and yes, to accept the presence of a natural fluoride toothpaste in our medicine cabinet.