The debate on whether fluoride is good or bad for us has been going on for decades. Is fluoride in drinking water safe? Should we give our babies fluoride tablets if their water source contains no fluoride? These types of questions have been circulating for nearly 80 years, and while there is evidence for and against fluoridation, it’s a little more complex than just a simple yes or no answer.
The Centers of Disease and Control (CDC) hail fluoride as a dental health miracle, stating that “Because of its contribution to the large decline in cavities in the United States since the 1960s, CDC named community water fluoridation one of 10 great public health achievements of the 20th century.” (1) The American Dental Association and American Academy of Pediatrics also agree.
But the answer isn’t that simple.
A growing body of research has been around even before fluoride was deemed safe for human ingestion. This research stressed how fluoride has long-lasting negative health effects in various systems of the body (2). And now, new research is confirming that fluoride might not be as safe as we once thought.
What is Fluoride?
The first and most important thing to know about fluoride is that not all fluoride is created equal. There are many types—both naturally occurring and synthetic—that you will come across when researching water.
Naturally-occurring fluoride, otherwise known as calcium fluoride, is naturally found in soil. While it is not something you want in abundance in your water, it is not that harmful to us. Calcium fluoride is considered “least toxic” and even “relatively harmless” because of its high insolubility. Spring water generally contains 0.01 – 0.03 ppm (parts per million) of calcium fluoride, naturally, while seawater is closer to 1.3 ppm (3). In some parts of the world, however, calcium fluoride can be found in amounts of nearly 10-20 ppm in water supplies. Levels this high are recognized as unsafe to ingest.
Synthetic fluoride additives like sodium fluoride, fluorosilicic acid, or sodium fluorosilicate are not found in nature. They’re a synthetic industrial version of fluoride that is added to public drinking water, dental products, pesticides, medications, and even some foods (in Central America, fluoride is added to salt!).
Synthetic fluoride additives like sodium fluoride, fluorosilicic acid, or sodium fluorosilicate are not found in nature. They’re a synthetic industrial version of fluoride that is added to public drinking water, dental products, pesticides, medications, and even some foods (in Central America, fluoride is added to salt!). Sodium fluoride was considered industrial toxic waste until 1950, when it was announced as the new preventative measure in dental health.
The difference between the two compounds? Calcium fluoride does not easily absorb in the body, where as sodium fluoride does.
Due to the lack of processing, fluoride chemicals are known to contain elevated levels of certain contaminants, particularly arsenic. Some research has even found associations between the fluoridation of water with fluorosilicic acid and elevated lead exposure (4).
Fluoridation chemicals used to come from the wet scrubbing systems of the phosphate fertilizer industry in central Florida. These scrubbers collect a liquid called hydrofluoroslicic acid. This is entered into storage tanks and shipped to water departments throughout the country. In 1983, a representative from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a statement saying:
“In regard to the use of fluorosilicic acid as the source of fluoride for fluoridation, this agency regards such use as an ideal solution to a long standing problem. By recovering by-product fluorosilicic acid from fertilizer manufacturing, water and air pollution are minimized, and water authorities have a low-cost source of fluoride available to them.” (5)
In 2000, however, Dr. William Hirzy, Ph.D., the senior vice president of EPA’s Headquarters Union of Scientists and Professionals said:
“If this stuff gets out into the air, it’s a pollutant; if it gets into the river, it’s a pollutant; if it gets into the lake, it’s a pollutant; but if it goes right into your drinking water system, it’s not a pollutant… There’s got to be a better way to manage this stuff.” (6)
In a petition submitted in 2013, Dr. Hirzy and colleagues requested that the EPA discontinue the use of hydrofluorosilicic acid in public water due to the proven adverse effects it may have on human health, include issues via the presence of arsenic (7). While the maximum contaminant level goal (MCLG) of arsenic is zero (due to cancer-causing properties), the EPA still allows 0.010 ppm of arsenic in water (8, 9). How do we get this level to zero? Stop putting fluoride in the water!
In recent years, an increasing number of water departments have started purchasing their fluoride chemicals from China. Unfortunately, quality control of these chemicals is even more lax than U.S.-produced chemicals.
Is Fluoride in Drinking Water Safe?
In April 2015, the U.S. government admitted that the “optimal” level of fluoride recommended since 1962 had in fact been too high. They did so after nearly 40 percent of American teens started showing signs of dental fluorosis — a sign of fluoride overexposure. In some areas, dental fluorosis rates were as high as 70 to 80 percent.
So the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) lowered its recommended level of fluoride in drinking water by 40 percent, from an upper limit of 1.2 milligrams per liter (mg/L) to 0.7 mg/L (10).
However, even though 0.7 mg/L lowers incidence of dental fluorosis, a handful of studies over the last couple years clearly show that this does NOT mean it’s a safe level overall. These new limits haven’t taken into account the health effects that occur at even low exposures of hydrofluorosilicic acid.
A ground-breaking new study, published in major medical journal, JAMA Pediatrics, found that pregnant women who drank fluoridated water had children with lower intelligence scores at ages 3 and 4. An increase of a milligram of fluoride per day—the amount in about five cups of water—was linked to a loss of 3.7 IQ points for boys and girls.
Between 2008 and 2011, researchers recruited expectant mothers during the first 14 weeks of a healthy pregnancy. Nearly 500 women provided urine samples during each trimester of pregnancy, which were then used to measure fluoride levels. The women also answered questions about where they lived in a community that added fluoride to its water, and how often they drank tap water. Once the women gave birth, their children at ages 3 and 4 were given IQ tests.
While self-reported high-fluoride intake was associated with lower IQ scores in both boys and girls, actual fluoride measurements from maternal urine samples was correlated with lower IQ scores in boys, but not in girls, when fluoride intake was high. This is because self-reported fluoride intake dealt specifically with fluoride consumed through beverages, so kids were likely exposed to the same water as they grew up.
Study co-author, Christine Till, suggests that males are more susceptible to damage from fluoride as males, in general, are at a higher risk of neurodevelopmental disorders like ADHD (11) — so it’s not too surprising that their IQ scores would be more closely linked to fluoride exposure.
Till told Time, “I would even argue that two IQ points would be something, at the population level, that we should be concerned about.”
This isn’t the only study to demonstrate brain damage from fluoride exposure.
- Brain damage, especially when coupled with iodine deficiency or excessive levels of aluminum
- Reduced IQ
- Impaired ability to learn and remember
- Neurobehavioural deficits such as impaired visual-spatial organization
- Impaired fetal brain development
A study out of Harvard, published in Environmental Health Perspectives in July of 2012, conducted a systematic review of studies, most of which were all from China where risks from fluoride are well-established. It was concluded that children who live in areas with highly fluoridated water have “significantly lower” IQ scores than those who live in low fluoride areas.
Other Researched Dangers of Fluoride
Fluoride interferes with our nervous system, but does it intrude on other areas of the body?
While largely debated, fluoride does seem to have an impact on increasing cancer risk.A 1977 study that compared the 10 largest fluoridated and unfluoridated cities at that time found an 18 percent increase in cancer-related deaths in fluoridated cities, compared to those that weren’t. This equated to around 3,000 more cancer deaths per 10 million persons in 1969 (14).
Other studies have found links between osteosarcoma (a rare type of bone cancer) and fluoride. One study published in 1993 found a 6.9 times increased risk of osteosarcoma among males under 20 years of age in the most fluoridated parts of a 3-county area (15).
A national case control study published in 2006 by Harvard scientists found that boys exposed to fluoridated water during their 6th, 7th and 8th years of life had a significantly elevated risk of developing osteosarcoma during adolescence (16).
With that being said, a number of studies have found no association between fluoride and osteosarcoma. But the Harvard study was the only study to carefully consider the “age-specific” risk of fluoride exposure.
Another downside of fluoride is that it has a negative impact on the functioning of our thyroid. Researchers from the University of Kent found that high levels of fluoride in the water supply is linked to hypothyroidism (a disorder of the endocrine system that produces symptoms like depression, weight gain and fatigue).
The study found that locations with fluoridated water supplies were 30 percent more likely to have high levels of hypothyroidism, compared to areas with low, natural levels of calcium fluoride in the water.
Increased Risk of Bone Fractures
Skeletal fluorosis, caused by exposure to high levels of fluoride, is a debilitating bone disease that wreaks havoc on many communities throughout the world. While fluoride, under certain circumstances, can help increase bone mass, many attempts to use fluoride as an experimental treatment for osteoporosis have backfired (17).
Studies of human populations have reported increased fracture rates in communities with 4 mg/L fluoride in the water, and animal studies have regularly found reductions in bone strength from fluoride exposures (18, 19).
A study conducted in Mexico also found an increase in bone fractures and major tooth damage in children exposed to fluoridated water (20).
Since diabetics generally drink more water than non-diabetics, they can consume substantially more fluoride from water and other beverages on a daily basis. Diabetics are considered a “sensitive subpopulation” with regard to fluoride exposure.
A literature review of the link between fluoride and diabetes, conducted by Dr. Geoff Pain (an Australian chemistry specialist), left him convinced that there was, indeed, a link. Dr. Pain stated:
“There is strong evidence that fluoride causes diabetes…diabetics are a “sensitive subpopulation” or “vulnerable group” and no attempt has been made by Australian health authorities to warn diabetics about fluoride toxicity or protect them from harmful exposure.”
While it warrants further investigation, other studies have found that low levels of fluoride in the water actually helps improve insulin resistance and aids glucose homeostasis (21).
Drinking Water Not The Only Source of Fluoride
Synthetic fluoride is not only added to drinking water. As mentioned above, it gets added to a variety of every-day products that we use, and even consume. Here is a general list of items that fluoride is added to:
Food & Drink (source)
– Infant formula
– Bottled fruit juices
– Carbonated beverages (sodas)
– Some baby foods
– Canned soup
– Some alcoholic beverages
– Boxed cereals
– Dry mix desserts
– Peach nectar
– Apricot nectar
– Onion rings
– White rice
– Canned sauerkraut
– Canned corn
– White potatoes
– Canned beets
– Canned tomatoes
Dental Hygiene Products (source)
– Fluoride toothpastes
– Fluoride mouthwash
– Fluoride gels (self-applied)
– Fluoride gels (professionally applied)
– Fluoride varnishes
– Fluoride supplements (prescribed to children in un-fluoridated water areas)
Pharmaceuticals (source, source)
– Advair Diskus
– Fluoroquinolone Antibiotics (like Cipro, Levaquin, Penetrex, Tequin, Factive, Raxar, Maxaquin, Avelox, Noroxin, Floxin, Zagam, Omniflox and Trovan)
– Cryolite (found in many grape products, including wine. Also allowed to be added to GMO fruit and vegetable crops)
– Sulfuryl fluoride
Cooking Utensils (source)
– Teflon pots and pans (or any other non-stick pan)
– Aluminum pots and pans
How to Avoid Fluoride
If you’re concerned about your health and exposure to fluoride, there are things you can do to reduce your exposure.
For example, instead of using teflon and other non-stick pans to cook your food, consider stainless steel pots and pans, enameled cast iron (like Le Creuset), glass baking dishes (like Pyrex), cast iron pans, and granite ware.
Dental hygiene products can easily be replaced with non-fluoridated versions. I wrote an article on how to make your own enamel-strengthening toothpaste, and can attest to how well it works, as I’ve been using it on my own teeth for years (and dentists and dental hygienists are always amazed at the state of my teeth). You can also make your own mouthwash, too!
As for drinking water, I personally use the countertop Berkey Water Filtration System with added fluoride filters to ensure the removal of fluoride, heavy metals, pesticides, hormones, drugs, and everything else they add to water. The resulting water also tastes great, too, and the carbon filters last nearly four years if you take care of them properly (like scrubbing them with an abrasive sponge every 3 months). The fluoride filters only need replacing once every 8 months to one year. Overall, this system has saved me so much money than when I was filling up gallon jugs of reverse osmosis water.
With that being said, you can also fill up jugs of reverse osmosis drinking water, or even check out a local spring in your area to fill up. The benefits of filling up your own spring water is that it’s free, and likely 10x better than any water you’ll get anywhere.
There are also total-home filtration systems that I’ve done some researching into, but haven’t yet invested in. One company I have had my eye on is Aquasana.