STUART — Is a tiny bit of poison good for your teeth?
The benefits or risks of fluoride are more than an academic argument in Stuart, where voters will decide in a Jan. 29 referendum whether to add amounts recommended by the Florida Department of Health to the city’s drinking water. The vote will take place in the shadow of a December 2006 decision by three of five Martin County Commissioners that halted plans to add fluoride to the county’s drinking water.
Public health officials cite a large body of scientific evidence that says maintaining between 0.7 and 1.2 parts per million of fluoride in community drinking water safely reduces tooth decay in children and adults. The exact amount is based on the average temperature of a locale — people drink more water in hot climates, less in cold — and the amount of fluoride occurring naturally in an area’s groundwater.
Stuart has less than 0.2 parts per million natural fluoride and would increase the amount to 0.8 parts per million.
The practice of adding fluoride began about 60 years ago, and today about 66 percent of Americans and 78 percent of Floridians have fluoridated tap water.
“Starting or continuing community water fluoridation is effective in reducing dental (decay) by 30 percent to 50 percent in communities,” the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded after reviewing 21 scientific studies of fluoride for its Guide to Community Preventative Services.
Critics of adding fluoride to drinking water point to other studies that warn high amounts of fluoride can stain and pit teeth, stiffen joints, increase the risk of bone fractures, decrease thyroid function, and have been linked to bone cancer in laboratory rats.
“What they’re putting in the water is hazardous waste,” said Pat Arena, a retired mechanical engineer from Jensen Beach among local critics of water fluoridation. “It does not benefit teeth, and it causes disease of the thyroid, bones, joints, brain and kidneys.”
Such critics of fluoride say it is everywhere, concentrated in processed food, drink and toothpaste labeled with warnings not to swallow it.
“We are overdosed with fluoride, because everything has fluoride in it,” Arena said. “How much proof do we need that there are at least some reasonable concerns about this?”
Supporters of fluoride say it is almost impossible to ingest harmful amounts of fluoride from everyday sources.
“Fluoride, like many other substances that are required to sustain life and promote health, is beneficial in small amounts and harmful in large amounts,” according to Dr. Michael Easley, dental coordinator for the Florida Department of Health’s Bureau of Dental Public Health. “For example, fluoride levels in fluoridated water are so low that an adult would have to consume 660 gallons of water in a two- to four-hour period to get a toxic level of fluoride that would cause death. … Likewise, a 12- to 18-month-old child would have to drink 85 gallons of fluoridated water in a two- to four-hour period in order to get a toxic level of fluoride that would cause death — again, a physical impossibility.”
Fluoride advocates are dogged by the fact that fluoride is listed as a contaminant by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
A National Research Council study of fluoride concluded in 2006 the 4 parts per million maximum allowed by the EPA puts children at risk for tooth enamel loss and pitting. The council’s committee unanimously concluded the maximum contaminant level should be lowered in places with high levels of natural fluoride.
It also made clear the report was not meant to address the lower fluoride levels recommended by the U.S. Public Health Service for drinking water.
“Instead, EPA’s guidelines are maximum allowable concentrations in drinking water intended to prevent toxic or other adverse effects that could result from fluoride,” the report states.
Stuart Mayor Jeff Krauskopf said the strongest complaints he’s heard are from fluoride critics among about 4,000 water customers outside the city limits who can’t vote in the referendum.
“They usually say, ‘Disconnect me and let me go on county water because they don’t have (fluoride),'” Krauskopf said. “That’s probably not going to happen because of the way the water lines are laid out.”
City Commissioner Carol Waxler said the issue has been relatively quiet since the commission put fluoridation plans on hold last year and let the voters decide. But before that time, it could be a hot topic.
“I’ve been on the commission three years, and we’ve gotten some of the most impassioned pleas that we’ve ever heard on this issue,” she said.