MANSFIELD — The federal government has recommended communities reduce the amount of fluoride in their water supplies, reigniting a decades-old debate in some communities whether the additive meant to prevent tooth decay should be used at all.
New studies have found too much fluoride in drinking water causes spots and streaks on some children’s teeth. This is one reason the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommended this month that fluoride concentration should be limited to 0.7 parts per million in drinking water.
The federal standard since 1962 has been a range of 0.7 to 1.2 parts per million, but Ohio’s standard, set in 1969, is slightly higher. The state requires most public water systems to adjust fluoride levels to 0.8 to 1.3 parts per million.
“One milligram per liter is optimum. Raw water already carries 0.28 milligrams of natural fluoride,” said Don Fox, the Water Supply Superintendent of Bucyrus.
Ontario City Councilman Paul Williams would like to see fluoride eliminated completely from that community’s drinking water. The city provides water to about 5,300 people.
“The cost is one issue,” Williams said. “The other is that if you want fluoride, you can get it in toothpaste or in treatment from your dentist.”
Williams cited concerns about the spots excessive amounts of fluoride have been shown to cause on teeth, as well as other health concerns.
“There a lot of people who are uncomfortable with fluoride in the water,” he said. “There’s a reason other (Ohio) cities don’t have it or have removed it.”
Council members debated and ultimately decided to fluoridate Ontario’s drinking water in 1984, a time when the community was still a village.
Fox understands both sides of the debate.
“I can see where they could get too much now with the fluoride in the toothpaste and that sort of thing,” he said. “I have attended some meetings and one of the dentists in town said that they could tell the difference the year we started using fluoride in the water. The kids came in with less cavities.”
When state legislators passed the law requiring public water systems that serve more than 5,000 people to adopt fluoride standards, they provided communities an eight-month window to be exempted through a referendum process.
Thirty Ohio communities voted to be exempted in 1970 — including Mansfield, Galion, Crestline, Mount Vernon, Springfield and Wooster. Since then, seven communities have reversed that decision and are now fluoridated, including Athens, Bellefontaine, Delaware and Middletown. A trace amount of fluoride occurs naturally in most water, but the question of whether to add more of the mineral has been a hotly debated issue in some areas.
“We don’t do it here. We passed a resolution not to,” said Paul Campbell, a lab technician at the Galion water plant. “We have a room upstairs dedicated to it if we ever wanted to start, but I doubt that would happen now.
“There have been a few times when doctors or dentists have been pushing for it, but it got pushed aside for one reason or another.”
Crestline also does not use the additive.
“The city never put forth the effort for that,” said Crestline Safety Service director Mark Milliron. “I think we are finding out right now though, that not adding a chemical might not be a bad thing.”
Mansfield residents and dental health groups have tried at least four times during the past six decades to get the city to fluoridate its water. City residents voted overwhelmingly not to fluoridate the water in a 1970 referendum. Subsequent pro-fluoride efforts, which took place as recently as 2006, have drawn criticism and fizzled.
Mansfield, which provides water to about 51,000 people, is the second biggest city in Ohio that doesn’t fluoridate its water. Springfield is the largest.
“Studies have shown that fluoridation is safe and effective,” said Linda Oros, an Ohio EPA drinking-water specialist. “The majority of communities do so.”
She said it is up to the state Legislature to decide if Ohio will adopt new federal recommendations about fluoride levels in drinking water.
Ninety percent of Ohioans, or about 10.3 million people, are served by public water supplies, according to the Ohio Department of Health. Of those, 92 percent are served by systems with currently recommended fluoride levels. Ohio ranks 19th in the nation for the percentage of residents on public water systems receiving fluoridated water.
Almost 839,000 Ohioans on public water systems do not receive fluoridated water. Bill Osmunson, a board member with advocacy group Fluoride Action Network, said that’s a good thing. The group is a proponent of eliminating fluoride from public water systems across the country, including recent efforts by elected officials to do so in New York City and other cities large and small.
Osmunson said studies about the benefits of fluoridated drinking water on dental health are mixed — and some research has actually shown it to cause health issues.
“Fluoride should not be put in the water because we’re already getting too much fluoride from other sources, like toothpaste,” he said.
Osmunson, a dentist in Bellevue, W.A., said too much fluoride can be linked to cardiovascular diseases, brittle bones and development issues in children.
Despite concerns raised by some, water with low concentrations of fluoride is supported by the World Health Organization, American Dental Association and many other public health groups. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has named the fluoridation of drinking water one of the 10 great public health achievements of the 20th century.
Information from the Associated Press was included in this story.