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The fluoridation of drinking water is considered “one of 10 great public health achievements of the 20th century” by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the US, where public water fluoridation was first practised to improve dental health. But the issue of fluoride in water has sparked mass controversy since it started in the 1940s.
All public drinking water in Australia, except that which has naturally occurring fluoride, is fluoridated. Worldwide, an estimated 355 million people drink artificially fluoridated water, and 50 million drink water that’s naturally fluoridated. While it is widely accepted that fluoride helps to prevent tooth decay, overexposure when young teeth are developing can cause dental fluorosis, where the tooth enamel becomes permanently stained or pitted. “At high levels, fluoride has been shown to interfere with enzymatic pathways, gastric acid production, poor absorption of nutrients and thyroid function,” says Dr. Bill Kellner-Read, dentist at Brisbane’s TFI Dentistry.
Tooth decay and gum disease are among the world’s leading health issues, and they can lead to serious conditions such as heart disease. There are no strong trends showing a dramatic improvement in dental health in areas with water fluoridation. “There’s conflicting evidence,” says Dr. Ron Ehrlich from the Sydney Holistic Dental Centre. “And the influence of corporations on regulatory and academic bodies is frightening.”
While the majority of dentists are advocates of fluoride, an increasing number of dental professionals – particularly those interested in overall wellbeing – are speaking out against it.
“If you were a dentist that was focussed on teeth, and you were looking for something that might make teeth a bit harder, fluoride would seem like a very good idea, and there’s plenty of research to support that,” says Ehrlich.
“But fluoride belongs to the same family of chemicals – called halogens – as chloride and iodine, and it competes with iodine for a place in the thyroid,” he adds. “With the number of people who have underactive or overactive thyroids, and the significant increase in thyroid cancer, I’m a little cautious. There are also issues surrounding the effect of fluoride on bone density. As a holistic dentist I’m not just focussing on the teeth, I’m focussing on the person attached to the teeth.”
It’s also an issue of lack of choice. “A one-size-fits-all approach to water fluoridation takes no real account of the quantity of other forms of ingested fluoride or the sensitivity of the individual to total fluoride uptake,” says Kellner-Read.
Doctors Ehrlich and Kellner-Read both recommend that people in Australia use fluoride-free toothpaste, especially if they are regularly drinking tap water.
Many health experts argue that fluoridating water is attempting to treat the symptoms of bad diets, whereas treating the cause with healthy, low-sugar diets would make more sense. “With the amount of junk kids are eating these days, fluoridation isn’t going to offset a bad diet,” says natural medicine practitioner Dagmar Ganser from True Medicine.
“If people want to avoid fluoride in their tap water, all they have to do is install an under-the-sink water filter that removes fluoride,” says Jon Dee, founder of Do Something! and the Go Tap campaign, which promotes tap water over bottled. Reverse osmosis filtration removes fluoride, or another option is to install a rainwater tank and filter the water with a good carbon filter before drinking.
Flick through to the second image on the right to see a list of fluoride-free toothpaste options. For more info on other additives you might find in your tap water, read this blog by health expert Tabitha McIntosh on what's in your water.