Gainesville Regional Utilities has had to stop adding fluoride to its water supply because of a chemical shortage affecting utilities throughout the state, GRU officials said Tuesday.
Though the utility’s supply of fluoridating chemicals ran out late last month, officials said a few weeks without the chemicals should not reduce the effects of fluoridation, which can prevent cavities. GRU expects a shipment of fluoridating chemicals within a week, said David Richardson, the municipal utility’s assistant general manager for water/wastewater systems.
The lack of chemicals that meet standards set by the American Water Works Association has caused problems nationwide, Richardson said.
“We’ve checked as far away as Tennessee and Washington, D.C., and we can’t find any (chemicals) anywhere that meets AWWA specifications,” he said.
Officials with the water association were unable to say Tuesday exactly why fluoridating chemicals were hard to find, but pointed to a study from 2005 that predicted supplies would become scarce in the following years.
The study, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, pointed to a decision by a major chemical producer to stop manufacturing the chemicals, the increase in utilities fluoridating their water supply and the increasing use of the chemicals for other purposes as the reasons for the scarcity.
Fluoride has been used since the 1940s to prevent cavities and provide greater oral health. GRU was the first utility in Florida to add the chemical to its water supply in the late 1940s, officials said.
Dr. Scott Tomar, a professor at the University of Florida College of Dentistry, said fluoridation has been the major factor involved in a sharp reduction in cavities and tooth decay in America over the past half-century. Fluoride works by preventing plaque from breaking down the enamel on teeth and replacing minerals in the enamel when acid is not present, he said.
Public health officials originally began recommending fluoridation in the 1940s after observing that people in communities with fluoride naturally in the water supply had fewer problems with tooth decay, Tomar said. Gainesville’s drinking water naturally contains fluoride but only about half the amount needed to provide health benefits, Richardson said.
While advocated by many public health agencies, fluoridation continues to be a subject of heated debate around the country. Many opponents argue the chemicals used in the process can be toxic, though Tomar said the process is safe.
GRU received its last shipment of hydrofluosilicic acid, the chemical used to fluoridate the water supply, in October and has been fluoridating the water using reserves since then. But that supply ran out Jan. 26, Richardson said.
A few weeks without fluoride should not have a measurable effect, Tomar said.
“For people living in a fluoride-containing community like Gainesville, I would say that a break of a couple weeks is not cause for serious concern as long as it comes soon,” he said.