Flouride in Water – The Invisible Additive

Flouride in Water – The Invisible Additive - A close up of a young child smiling at the camera - Smile

If we’re in any of the many fine Duval Street establishments, most of us will try and be prudent enough to keep an eye on our beverage. We’ll generally encounter people just like us, who might just want to have some relaxation and conversation. Surely, though, we’ve heard horror stories of drinks being compromised; we’d like to avoid that unlikely possibility of some new and unsavory ingredients in our libations.

It follows naturally, then, that we might also want to watch what others put in our home refreshments. Thus, when a chemical that’s added to our water became the subject of a research paper last month, many of us might have taken notice.

The paper involved the additive fluoride. Fluoridated tap water is available to about 66% of U.S. residents, 77% of Florida residents, and 100% of Monroe County residents. Over and over again, studies have shown that it helps prevent tooth decay, especially when taken in before the teeth are fully developed. In places with no water fluoridation — such as the New England community where I worked prior to coming to the Keys — fluoride supplements have been recommended for years.

Any time there’s a treatment with that sort of mandate (I’m looking at you, immunizations), there is a healthy tendency to wonder: Is it safe? Effective? While many have continued to ask these questions even as fluoridation’s track record has remained solid, the recent study, which was reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association, has raised new questions.

The study looked at fluoride intake of pregnant women. It was measured both by report (e.g. how much fluoridated water the women thought they drank) and by concentration in the urine. It was found that women with more fluoride exposure had children with an IQ that was on average 3.7 points lower than those with less exposure. The study, though, didn’t uniformly show this: although both measurements showed an effect by Mom’s intake report, only the boys were shown to have an IQ effect when the researchers looked at urine. 

As eye-opening as this was, this is a single study. And when you have thousands of studies saying that fluoridated water is safe and effective, we may, for now, have to take this with a grain of sodium fluoride. Both the American Dental Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics have done just that and continue to recommend fluoride for children. There’s just too much benefit to do otherwise at this time. And when you consider that not all kids — especially those on Medicaid — have easy access to regular professional dental care, it seems even more prudent to prevent dental problems down the road any way we can.

All this said, we will need to stay tuned and see what future studies show. Fluoride recommendations have already been adjusted over the years due to something called fluorosis, a mottling of the teeth due to too much fluoride. But wait — how can we even tell if we’re getting too much in? That’s a lot more difficult than you might think. Not only do we ingest different amounts of tap water, but there’s exposure from swallowed toothpaste and even some foods and beverages. Yes, what you eat and drink may contain a significant amount of fluoride. And that potentially even includes that Duval Street beverage. 

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