CHE 300

Environmental Science

Dr. J. A. Schneider
Dept. of Chemistry
SUNY Oswego
Oswego, NY 13126

Rm: 237 Snygg Hall
Tel: 315.312.2124
Environmental Investigations: Water Fluoridation, Un-American? by Jeffery A. Schneider, Ph.D.

Issues and Background

Community water fluoridation is a public health effort that benefits millions of Americans. For more than half a century, water fluoridation has helped improve the quality of life in the U.S. through reduced pain and suffering related to tooth decay, reduced tooth loss, reduced time lost from school and work, and less money spent on dental care.
National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research

Water fluoridation is a peculiarly American phenomenon. It started at a time when Asbestos lined our pipes, lead was added to gasoline, PCBs filled our transformers and DDT was deemed so "safe and effective" that officials felt no qualms spraying kids in school classrooms and seated at picnic tables. One by one all these chemicals have been banned, but fluoridation remains untouched.
Paul Connett, Ph.D.

Let's suppose that you go to a party and someone hands you a cold refreshing drink. It looks safe; it tastes safe; and you trust the person that gave you the drink. A short time later you start to feel light-headed, maybe even pass-out and when you awake you have lost track of the time that you were unconscious. It would seem that someone at the party violated your trust and put something in your drink without you knowing it. Many of you reading this are probably thinking that I was referring to gamma hydroxybutyrate (i.e. GHB) and if I was, then yes this was indeed a criminal act. Putting something in someone's drink without telling them is at best, unethical and at worst, illegal. But it might surprise you to know that I could have just as easily been referring to any of a number of substances that are in a nice cold refreshing glass of water. All there perfectly legally, perhaps without the acute effects that I described but nonetheless with other possible long-term chronic effects. Fluoride, for example, is put into many drinking-water supplies by the government without much of the public even being aware of it, while others are very aware of it and want it to stop.

I attended graduate school in a very conservative state in the northeastern United States. This state did not fluoridate the drinking water, which kind of surprised me because at the time I thought everyone fluoridated drinking water. The only reason I even became aware of this was because my son's dentist told us that we should give him fluoride drops once a day. When I started asking questions about why they didn't add this beneficial element to the water, I was greeted with quite an unexpected response. The attitude from the citizenry toward the very thought of fluoridating the drinking water seemed to be one of outright contempt for the government. "How dare they fluoridate the water? It's un-American!" My faith in everything I had learned about the benefits of fluoridation while growing up in the liberal Midwest was being tested.

Chemically, fluoride reacts with the mineral, hydroxyapatite, in the enamel of your teeth and forms a new mineral called fluorapatite. It can be quite easily shown that this new mineral is on the order of 1000 times less soluble in water than the original hydroxyapatite, and even less soluble in acids (e.g. from all of the foods we eat), so it sounds like a good idea to put it in the water. But does drinking water with fluoride help prevent tooth decay? When we drink water, anything dissolved in it, in this case fluoride, washes over our teeth (for a very short time) and into our stomachs. But, in order for the fluoride to provide any benefit it needs to come in contact with our enamel (i.e. be applied topically); whereas, when the fluoride is input to our system (i.e. applied systemically) as a whole it does nothing for our teeth. So in this case it sounds like a better idea to have fluoride in toothpaste but not bother putting it in water.

So, what to do? I guess I'm torn. There are certainly many reasons for fluoridating drinking water but there are as many for not doing so. But the fact that we do so without telling people about it or letting them choose if they want it, just might tip the balance for me. You decide.

Ask Yourself These Questions
  1. Does your municipality fluoridate the drinking water? If so, how much do they add? Is it at the level the Federal government recommends or is it below this level? How much does it cost your municipality to fluoridate the water every year? What is the per capita cost?
  2. If your main source of drinking water is/was a private well, do you or did you take fluoride supplements? Do you have fluoride treatments at the dentist's office? How much do these fluoride treatments cost? Compare this cost to the per capita cost of water fluoridation (ask someone whose municipality fluoridated the water what number they calculated in #1 above). Is there any economic advantage or disadvantage to water fluoridation?
  3. If it is illegal to put GHB in someone's drink without telling them, why isn't it illegal to put fluoride in drinking water without giving people a choice?
  4. If you were a member of your town's governing board, what kinds of information would you need to make an informed decision about your town's water fluoridation program?
Different Perspectives in the Debate

  • Fluoride is Safe Viewpoint
    http://www.sukel.com/flouride is safe.htm
    Opinion page that supports fluoridation of drinking water.
  • Fluoride is Unsafe Viewpoint
    http://www.sukel.com/flouride is unsafe.htm
    Opinion page that opposes fluoridation of drinking water.
  • The Absurdities of Water Fluoridation
    http://www.redflagsweekly.com/connett/2002_nov28.html
    An article by Paul Connett on the RedFlagsWeekly.com website arguing against fluoridation of drinking water.
  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Union Against Water Fluoridation
    http://www.fluoridation.com/epa2.htm
    The National Treasury Employees Union (to which the employees of the USEPA belong) opposes fluoridation of drinking water. This is their statement.
  • National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research
    http://www.nidr.nih.gov/health/waterFluoridation.asp
    The NIDCR supports fluoridation of drinking water. This is their statement.
  • ToxFAQs: Fluoride, Hydrogen Fluoride and Fluorine
    http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/tfacts11.html
    The U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) maintains a number of Fact Sheets on many compounds. This particular Fact Sheet addresses fluoride, hydrogen fluoride and fluorine. From the site: "Low levels of fluoride can help prevent dental cavities. At high doses, fluoride can result in tooth and bone damage."
  • Fluoride Action Network
    http://www.fluoridealert.org/index.htm
    From the website: "The Fluoride Action Network is a collective, international volunteer effort that will use this website as its coalition home base and as a resource for primary sources on fluoride. It was launched on May 2, 2000."
  • Kids Health (for Parents) Regarding Fluoride
    http://kidshealth.org/parent/general/teeth/fluoride.html
    The article discusses what fluoride is, why it is good for your teeth and the controversy surrounding water fluoridation.
  • Water Fluoridation: Second Look
    http://www.slweb.org/fluoridation.html
    From the website: "Second Look is a national non-profit initiative that evolved from grassroots frustration with public policies that are so controversial that useful, factual information becomes almost impossible for the public and even professionals to sort out. Second Look 's main goal is to facilitate full public and scientific examinations of public policy issues that have become obscured by media treatment (or lack thereof), or by political rhetoric, or because of the inaccessibility of accurate information to relevant constituencies." Lots of good resources here.

All material (except for some code and external links) © Jeffery A. Schneider, 2003