Fluoride must be good. Every government and public health organization in the world endorses its use, so effective is it at fighting tooth decay and cavities. Its presence is promoted on toothpaste to encourage parents to buy the best for their families. It's added to public drinking water supplies to subtly boost the public's exposure.
But is it all too much?
The U.S. Department of Health is now recommending that the maximum amount of fluoride added to public water supplies be cut by more than 40%. In 2008, Health Canada made similar recommendations for Canada.
Fluoridation of water, particularly, has been controversial among a small set of advocates for decades. Dismissed as conspiracy theorists, they point to controversial studies linking fluoride exposure to rare bone cancer, learning deficiencies and other ills, as well as well-documented link between over-exposure and the mottling of tooth color, a purely aesthetic problem called fluorosis. (They have also pointed out that brushing fluoride on teeth is effective, whereas ingesting it appears less so, or not at all.)
At least one health and environmental watchdog, therefore, is calling the new U.S. recommendations "belated."
"We've had to wait too long, but the government's announcement marks a belated recognition that many American children are at risk from excess fluoride in drinking water and other sources," said Jane Houlihan, senior vice president for research at the Environmental Working Group, which has argued for lowering the fluoride levels in drinking water since 2005. Now, she said, it's up to water utilities to follow the new federal recommendations, and that could take citizen action to educate water plant managers, and hold them to the new standards.
About 70% of U.S. residents -- basically everyone who has municipal water piped to the house, rather than drawn from a private well -- drink fluoridated drinking water, and has since the 1940s. To learn about what's in your water, start by calling your local water department or visiting water.epa.gov/drink/local to learn where your water comes from, how it is treated, and what contaminants have been documented in it.
Houlihan cited fluoride as an example that might hold lessons for other chemicals now commonly used in the U.S.: "This decision is another signal to the public to take care when it comes to exposures to industrial chemicals; what is considered safe today won't necessarily be thought safe tomorrow. New science usually reveals new risks and drives more protective standards, as we've seen today with the government's fluoride announcement."
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